Thursday, April 11, 2013

Making Your Fruits and Veggies Happy

We've recently starting participating in Bountiful Baskets and as a result I've had to do some quick research on the best way to store fresh produce.

First of all let me say that so far I'm very happy with Bountiful Baskets. The fruits and vegetables are extremely fresh and delicious and I've estimated that we're getting about $20-$25 worth of produce for $15. I've not yet ventured out and tried some of the other things they offer but I will. If it's available in your area I recommend you give them a try.

Since we have a small family of 3, I end up with a lot more fresh produce than we can consume before it starts to go bad. I began to research the best way to store various items and discovered that everyone thinks their way is the best way. And it might be the best way...for them. So basically, you might have to try a couple of different methods to see which one you have the best luck with. I'll tell you what works for me.

I panicked a little when I saw the 2 large bunches of leaf lettuce in last week's basket. We like salad but I doubted we'd be able to choke down 2 whole heads before they went to the dark side.

My Google research showed that although several different methods were mentioned, the majority of people had the best luck with one method and it will work on any kind of lettuce you have.

You start with the freshest lettuce you can find. If your lettuce is already wilty, it won't really come back to life. Then you separate the lettuce leaves and toss out the icky ones. After that you wash them thoroughly and dry them. That's the trick. The lettuce leaves must be dry before you put them in the fridge. You can use a salad spinner if you have one or do like me and lay them out on towels and dab at them till they dry.

Then you lay out a long strip of paper towels, lay your leaves on the towels like I did in the picture, then start at one end and roll up the paper towel, leaves and all. It's like making a jelly roll with a paper towel and lettuce leaves instead of a cake. I know...cruel analogy.

Then you pop your lettuce doobie into a large Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out, zip it up and toss it in the fridge. Rumor has it your lettuce could last up to 2 weeks. I might believe it since the lettuce in the picture above is already 5 days old and is still as fresh and crisp as it was when I first got it.

Next I dealt with the 4 pounds of bananas we got in our basket. They were just the way we like them, not too green but no brown spots yet. I knew it could be just a matter of minutes before the brown spots appeared then none of us would eat them.

I asked my Facebook friends (who are all geniuses and know everything about everything...I love them) for banana recipes or suggestions. Several people recommended freezing them and gave me some tips on how to do that. Again, everyone has their own method and I tried a couple of different ones. I read somewhere that if you freeze the banana with the peel still on it won't turn brown as badly and they will last several months longer in your freezer.

I haven't yet tried any of the peel-on frozen bananas but I feel confident they will work just fine. Of course they will be used only for cooking and smoothies since freezing changes their texture.

My basket had a bunch of fresh celery and fortunately I already knew what to do with it since I'd tried this method before and it works great. You wash the celery and trim the ends then I go ahead and cut it into snack sized sticks since that's most likely the way we'll eat it.

Dry the celery off...again this is the key to keeping it fresh. Then wrap it with foil that is lined with a dry paper towel. You can also wrap it in a paper towel and put it in a Ziploc but the foil works better for me. Using this storage method I've had celery stay fresh for 2 weeks. It also works with broccoli.

Some people suggest putting your celery in a bowl of water in the fridge to keep it fresh. I've never done that just because it takes up extra fridge space but that's another method you can try.

I was very excited about the bag full of baby yellow bell peppers in my basket! I freeze and use bell peppers all the time so I knew what to do with them. I washed and seeded them, chopped them into chunks, then spread the chunks out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and popped it in the freezer.

After they froze I transferred the chunks to a Ziploc baggie where they will stay good for months. I use this same method for onions. If you flash freeze them in a single layer before putting them in the baggie, they won't stick together which makes them much easier to use. Otherwise you end up with a brick of onion chunks and you have a chisel off a piece just to use them.

Google taught me a strawberry storage method that I am very excited about! Strawberries are easy to freeze but like bananas they're never quite the same. My Bountiful Basket included just one container which I felt was hardly worth the effort to freeze and preferred to keep them in the fridge to snack on.

When kept in their original plastic box strawberries will usually only last maybe 3 days in my fridge before they start to get mushy or grow beards. Then I heard that if you keep them in glass jars they will last longer. I'm not sure how much longer but the ones in the picture above are already 5 days old and are still firm and fresh and most importantly...not hairy.

All you have to do is take the strawberries out of their original container and pop them into glass jars with a good lid. Of course make sure they're dry and it's best to not wash them first. I had to use 2 jars since I discovered that my big empty pickle jar still smelled like pickles which I later fixed.

There is a trick for mushrooms that I forgot to take a picture of. Like the strawberries you don't want to wash them ahead of time. Just take them out of their container and put them in a paper bag. Fold the top of the bag over and put it on a shelf in the fridge. Do NOT put the bag in your veggie crisper since it's too humid in there and mushrooms like it dry. Like everything else my shrooms are 5 days old and still look brand new!

I keep citrus fruits and tomatoes at room temperature since that seems to make them happiest. Apples, depending on the variety, can last for several weeks in the fridge. I think of potatoes as the divas of the produce world. They prefer to be kept at 40-50 degrees which is warmer than my fridge and colder than my house. I don't have a cellar so there's really no place for me to store them where they'll be truly happy. The best I can do for them is to keep them in their own drawer in the fridge. Just remember one thing: taters are loners. Don't store any other fruits or veggies with them. They create some kind of gas or something that will make other stuff spoil faster.

This morning instead of my usual cup of flavored creamer with a dollop of coffee, I made myself a smoothie instead. I'm hoping that will make my thighs forget about the slice of pizza and 4 cupcakes I ate yesterday. I used a container of Chobani yogurt, a banana that I had sliced and frozen, 3 of my 5-day old delicious fresh strawberries, and a splash of milk. It was delightful. It made enough for 2 glasses of that size so I put the rest in a baggie and tossed it in the freezer to see how it would fare. Tomorrow I will put it back into the Ninja and see what happens.

So there you have it. Everything I know about making your fresh produce last longer cuz I get really irritated when I have to toss something out because it went bad before I got around to using it. And that happens a lot. I now feel the need to eat a lime which I do regularly so storage isn't an issue since they don't hang around long enough. Just doing my part in the battle against scurvy.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Baby Lock Beats A Dead Horse

Does anyone remember all the drama I went through last year while trying to get Baby Lock to stand behind their warranty on my 22 year old sewing machine? Yeah, I thought we were over that too but apparently Baby Lock can't let it go. If you need a refresher you can read about what happened in these 3 posts:

I didn't really wrap up the story because to be honest, I was sick and tired of it. In my last update I had dropped my machine off at my local Baby Lock dealer/repair center as instructed by Mr. President's assistant who assured me it would be taken care of at no charge to me.

It wasn't but maybe 3 days later when I got a call that my machine was fixed and ready to be picked up. When I got it, there was a $45 charge on the ticket for the bobbin case that they replaced, which surprised me since I didn't know there was anything wrong with the one I had. But other than that, there were no other charges on the ticket. It didn't matter to me one way or another because the bill went to Baby Lock.

So basically I spent almost a month trying to get the company to honor their 25-year warranty on my 22 year old machine and fix what amounted to less than $50 in repairs. Of course there would have been some labor charges in there if I had been paying for it, but I can't imagine it would have amounted to much since they fixed it so quickly.

Would I consider this a positive experience with Baby Lock? Well of course not! Yes, in the end they fixed my machine at no charge to me. But I spent weeks jumping through hoops just to make that happen.

I thought I was done with Baby Lock and would never have to deal with them again since I certainly will never buy another one of their machines and if something else happens to the one I've got I will toss it in the garbage and buy a new one from a company who actually knows the meaning of 'customer service'. Well, apparently Baby Lock isn't over it and requires some additional closure.

In one of my previous Baby Lock posts I talk about my experience with a Product Support Supervisor who I called "Sue". I have no idea what a Product Support Supervisor really does but if they're all like Sue they should never EVER be allowed to have any contact with customers.

Today, a good 6 months+ after all this was resolved, I got another email from Sue. It looked something, or rather exactly like this:

It has been called to our attention you still have a negative posting for Baby Lock still active.  Baby Lock has not only stood behind the warranty of your Baby Lock BL2100 but provided the service to you at no charge.  We would appreciate an update or removal of the following post:

I sent Sue a reply and included links to my other 2 follow-up posts which apparently the "attention caller" overlooked. I told her I would post again to wrap things up but that it would still not be a positive post because I did not have a positive experience!

I just can't tell you how stunned I am that Sue or anyone at Baby Lock would expect me to pat them on the back for standing behind their warranty and fixing my machine at no charge to me. Anyone who reads about what I went through to get to that point will see that it was achieved through my perseverance and had absolutely nothing to do with how awesome Baby Lock apparently thinks it is. I would have thought they'd just like to put this behind them and move on rather than dredge it up again.

But...since they insisted...I will comply. I will not remove any of my posts but I will gladly post any updates that the company requires, as long as they realize that those updates will never be positive. It was a negative experience from the git go and at this point there is nothing they can do to change that. Requests like the one I received today just serve to reinforce the negative experience I had with them. All of this is of course my opinion based on my my experiences with Baby Lock.

I have one final thought. I don't know who it was who brought my blog post to Baby Lock's attention but all I have to say to you is...thanks for reading!! I love my readers :)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Color Me Rad...Good or Bad? **UPDATE-2**

Before and After
We had some friends staying with us this weekend so they could run in Color Me Rad here in Houston. In fact there was a total of 11 human bodies and one canine in my house over the weekend.

I guess that might sound stressful to some people but it really doesn't phase me much at all. The only thing I'm concerned with is that everyone has a place to sleep and clean towels for the shower. Other than that I don't make any promises as far as feeding or entertaining. We just make it up as we go and it usually turns out to be a pretty fun time for everyone.

These color "races" (most are not a race but a charity fun run) were inspired by the Holi Festival in India which I have longed to see since I first learned about it years and years ago. I was held back by the fact that it takes place in India, which is not really convenient for me, and also I'm not Hindu. Then one day I ran across a color run website on the internet but never lived in an area close enough to one until recently.

Jayson and I didn't run in the race because we have some almost believable physical limitations. Well, they're actually all true but they sound really lame. We decided our efforts would be put to better use by volunteering instead of running.

Jayson was looking forward to dousing our friends with fistfuls of colored cornstarch but when the time came it started looking less and less appealing so we decided to help hand out water bottles at the half-way point instead. This ended up being a great choice for us and we enjoyed it a lot. Our bodies are extremely angry at our choice but they'll get over it eventually.

We left our house at the butt crack of dawn so we could park free at Reliant. After 8 a.m. they charged $10 for parking. Jayson and I made our way to the volunteer area where we were given a yellow t-shirt and told to wait over by all the other yellow t-shirts. We couldn't help but notice that almost everyone in a yellow t-shirt appeared to be under the age of 17 and also Asian. Which was odd. I think there was a large group of volunteers from some organization that was apparently mostly young and Asian.

We approached a guy in a blue staff shirt carrying a megaphone since it's been our experience that people who carry megaphones sometimes know stuff. Same rule applies to clipboard carriers. Let's call megaphone man "Bob". Bob told us to stay put while he got all the other volunteers separated into groups...which looked a lot like herding cats. We felt a little conspicuous standing all alone but we follow directions fairly well and stayed put until Bob was ready for us.

All the other yellow shirts were loaded into the back of large trucks but Bob pointed to his truck and told us we could ride up front with him. I'm pretty sure he made that decision after he assessed our age and general physical condition and decided not to risk one of us breaking a hip in the back of his truck.

We made our way around the ginormous Reliant parking lot, stopping at a couple of color stations to drop off volunteers. I thought all the color came from colored cornstarch but we learned that some of the color stations had volunteers equipped with water sprayers in a backpack. The water was colored with packets of highly concentrated liquid dye which I think is food grade so it's safe. After learning this the only thing going through my head was cornstarch + water = glue. It ended up being a fine mist of water which didn't seem to react with the cornstarch and turn people into gummy colorful statues like I was hoping.

When we got to the water station we set up tables and began unpacking the 2-1/2 pallets of water that were waiting for us. We were told to take the lids off as many bottles as we could before the race started. This proved to be a really sucky job so we encouraged the dozen or so youngsters at our station to do most of the work. I was nearly having a panic attack at the thought of all those plastic water bottle caps going to waste since I was sure I could find something crafty to do with them. I mentioned this to one of the volunteers who was a bossy little Asian girl we referred to as The General. She made it her personal mission to make sure that every single water bottle cap found its way into my designated bag. I don't know how many I ended up with but it's a lot.

We had a lot of fun handing out water and looking at the crazy costumed runners who came by our station. I think the capacity for this race was 8,000. It wasn't sold out so my best guess is maybe 6,000 participants showed up and pretty much every single one of them thanked us as they ran, walked, or sometimes crawled by.

We had a really great time so would I do it again? Well...maybe. There were a couple of things that didn't sit well with me. They're not major enough for me to say I would never ever have anything to do with a Color Me Rad race again, but they're enough to make me think carefully before I do.

I learned a lot while visiting with Bob in the cab of his truck. Bob's glassy eyes rarely focused on anything for more than a few seconds so I was pretty sure he was at least half baked. This might have worked to my advantage since he answered all of my very direct questions.

There are several different color races that take place around the country but Color Me Rad is a new one, less than 2 years old. The people who started it began to sell franchises in the U.S. and Canada and that's how it has grown so quickly in such a short period of time. There are over 100 races scheduled for 2013, each of them averaging 5,000 to 6,000 participants. The Calgary race at the end of June will have over 20,000 participants and will be a 2-day event.

The registration fees vary from free to $55 or more depending on the race and when you sign up. If you volunteer to help at the packet pick-up site before the race, you can run for free. You can register the day of the race but it will cost you. Your registration fee typically includes a t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, your participant number and a temporary tattoo. All volunteers also receive a free t-shirt.

The Color Me Rad website states that a portion of their proceeds will benefit a charity within the community. For the Houston race the chosen charity was The Special Olympics. So how much money did The Special Olympics get? No one knows. I'm sure The Special Olympics knows and are very grateful for any donation they receive but do they really get a "portion of the proceeds"? In my opinion, not so much.

Here's what Half Baked Bob told me. Keep in mind that Bob is not a local volunteer. He is a paid employee of Color Me Rad which is a for-profit corporation. Bob said that when a local charity is chosen, they can send their people to volunteer at the race and Color Me Rad will pay the charity for each volunteer. He thought it was around $75 per volunteer. Our charity was The Special Olympics so they could provide volunteers from within their organization or from anyone who participates in their Olympics.

There were approximately 250 volunteers signed up to help with the race, some at the packet pick-up site a couple of days before the race but the majority of those volunteers were with us on race day. My best guess is that very few, if any, were with The Special Olympics. I really hope I'm wrong about that but none of the volunteers we met were with The Special Olympics.

Another way that Color Me Rad benefits the local charity is to collect donations from their website. For The Special Olympics the goal was to collect $20,000 in donations. As of today, the total was $3,237.00 in donations made by 8 donors. That's really pitiful when you consider that several thousand people paid an average of about $40 each to participate. Even when you take their expenses into account (cornstarch, t-shirts, water, site fees, freebies, etc.) this is a money-making machine.

According to Bob there is no set portion of the registration fee that goes to the charity. He said it's possible that Color Me Rad makes a donation later on but he wasn't sure about that. There have been some races where you can enter a specific code when you register and that will set aside a portion of your registration for the charity, but the Houston race didn't have that option.

Here's my issue. If you're going to say that your event benefits a charity or that a portion of your proceeds will benefit a charity then I expect you to do more than throw a few dollars at that charity. I feel like Color Me Rad is using the charity angle to lure in more participants since a lot of people love to do charity fun runs. But in the end the charity gets a pittance of the overall proceeds which could easily be in the $100,000 range.

Another issue I had was with the waste the race generates. There were 2-1/2 pallets of water at our water station and probably the same amount at the finish line. There were 35 8 oz. bottles per case and 128 cases per pallet. That's 4,480 water bottles per pallet. We ended up using approximately 2 pallets worth so we went through 8,960 bottles of water. We were provided with large trash cans and bags and were told to just toss them in the nearby dumpster.

Okay seriously? How hard would it have been to contact a local recycling center to come pickup the empties? I would have hauled some of the bags to the center myself if we hadn't had a car load of people with us. I did bring home as many bottle caps as I could but I cringed at the thought of all the bottles and cardboard boxes being tossed into the trash. Boo on you, Color Me Rad.

So there you have it. The Color Me Rad people need to call me because they obviously need my help. If they're going to say that a portion of their proceeds will benefit a local charity then they need to actually set aside a percentage of the proceeds or the registration fees for that charity. What they're doing now is misleading and benefits the race more than the charity. Also I think they have a responsibility to make sure that the gargantuan amount of recyclables they are generating actually get recycled. But if they want to ship all the bottle caps to my house I'll make sure they get put to good use.

Here is an email I sent to Color Me Rad:
"Can you tell me what percentage of your proceeds are donated to charity? I volunteered at the Houston run today and an employee told me that Color Me Rad encourages donations from its participants and volunteers but that none of the proceeds from the run are set aside to benefit the charity."

Here is the response I received:
"They were mistaken. Each charity receives about 25-30% depending on their involvement in setting up the race and providing volunteers. We love our charities!"

My take on this is that she just confirmed what Half Baked Bob told me. They pay the charity per volunteer. That 25-30% is probably the cap...they won't pay the charity any more than that percentage of the proceeds regardless of how many volunteers are provided. Again...that's just my opinion but she did state that the charity is paid depending on their involvement which is not the same as receiving a portion of the proceeds. They work for their donation.

This just occurred to me in the shower where I get all my profound thoughts. And some not quite so profound ones. Each race is manned mostly by volunteers with a small number of paid staff on hand to oversee. I actually like this and think it's a great idea. From a business point of view it makes sense because there is no way they could employ enough people to manage each race and still turn a profit. paying non-profits for volunteer labor not only do they get the benefit of not having to pay payroll taxes or carry insurance (unemployment, workers comp, etc.) on those volunteers but they also get to deduct from their tax return a portion of whatever they pay the organization for their charity labor. On the business side it's genius. On the ethics side it's walking a fine line. It's not really unethical it's just...selfish?