Breakfast for a Week for $4: Hard-Boiled Eggs

Hard-boiled eggs are an excellent and inexpensive breakfast food, especially if you know the best way to cook them.

childrens-book-humpty-dumptyI think most people like hard-boiled eggs, but the problem is doing the hard-boiling.  If you undercook them, they have a gooey or runny center, which is bad if that’s not what you want.*  If you overcook them, then they get that ugly greenish gray color around the center and they may have an “off” odor and unpleasant taste.  You have to cook them just the right amount, not too little, not too much.  It’s not easy to do.  For one thing, there’s no way you can measure what’s going on, cooking-wise, inside the egg.  The exterior of the egg doesn’t change color as it cooks.  It doesn’t feel any different if you touch it.  You can’t poke a meat thermometer into it.  However, the one thing you can measure is time, which goes a long way towards solving the egg-cooking problem, if you can keep the cooking temperature constant.

Measuring the length of time your eggs have been cooking only helps you if the temperature of the water around them is the same every time.  However, this is difficult to achieve.  You put water in a cooking pot, bring it to a boil and add the eggs.  Adding the cold eggs to the water immediately lowers the water temperature.  But by how much?  That depends on the quantity of boiling water you have, how cold the eggs are, and how many eggs you put into the pot.  One egg will lower the temperature of the water just a little.  Several eggs will lower the temperature quite a bit.  The more the water’s temperature is lowered, the longer it takes to return to a boil and the longer it takes the eggs to cook.  Another factor is the amount of heat being produced by the stove.  Is it the same every time?  All things considered, there’s a lot of temperature inconsistency from one egg-boiling session to another.  That means you don’t know how much heat is being transferred to the eggs, so you have no idea how of precisely how long you need to cook them.  Perhaps if you were careful to use exactly the same amount of water, in the same cooking pot, and the same number of eggs, and the same setting on the stove every time, you might, by trial-and-error, eventually determine the correct cooking time.  The same problems arise if you put eggs in pot of cold water and bring them to a boil.  How cold was the water to begin with?  How many eggs?  How hot is the stove?  Again, inconsistency, unless you carefully measure all of these things and experiment carefully.

Thankfully, there’s a much easier method that yields much better results, every time.

To give credit where it’s due, I believe this method was developed be the cooking experts at Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  It’s genius.

Basically, you put a steamer basket in your pot, fill it with water up to (but not above) the level of the basket’s bottom and bring the water to a boil.  Then put your eggs, making sure they’re not cracked or broken, straight from the refrigerator, into the basket.  Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid.  Turn the heat down to medium-low, sufficient to maintain a slow boil.  Allow the eggs to cook in the steam, covered, for 12 or 13 minutes.  The exact cooking time will vary a bit, depending on the size of your eggs and how cold your refrigerator is, but this method is far superior to anything that involves eggs submerged in boiling water.

You should keep the pot covered the entire cooking time, but you might peek once to make sure the water hasn’t boiled away.  If your lid fits tightly, this shouldn’t be a problem.  After the time has elapsed, carefully transfer the eggs to a bowl of cold water and ice and allow them to cool for 10 minutes.  Store in the refrigerator and use as needed.

The beauty of this method is that the cold eggs are not submerged in the water, so they don’t reduce the water temperature.  The water keeps boiling as you add the eggs to the basket.  Therefore, there’s plenty of steam, and the temperature of the steam stays constant, something very close to the temperature of boiling water.  By keeping the eggs out of the water, most of the variables are eliminated.  One great thing about this method is that it works equally well with just a couple eggs or as many as can fit in the basket under the lid.  I usually cook 10 eggs on Sunday and eat 2 each morning during the M-F workweek.  Given that eggs cost around $3 (or less) per dozen, $4 per week allows boiled eggs, maybe a piece of toast, and perhaps an avocado once in a while!  Avocado-Egg Toast!  Mmmmmm!

Compare this to the cost of getting a breakfast sandwich at a fast-food place.  That could easily be $16 per week.  Cooking your own eggs means $12 per week saved.  $12 × 50 weeks per year = $600 per year.  If you’re not putting 10% (or more) or your income into your retirement savings accounts, here’s something that can move you toward that goal.  (Your savings might be even more if you eliminate the temptation to buy more than just a sandwich at the fast-food place.  Make your own tea or coffee and you’ll save more.

* I like soft-boiled eggs just fine, but I like them only if they’re served hot.  The steam-cooking method also works for soft-boiled eggs.  If you want soft-boiled eggs, reduce the cooking time to about 7 minutes for very soft or 9 minutes for medium-soft.

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My Computer Was Beeping

dell_inspironSome days ago, a member of my household decided to move some furniture, which including moving our family computer.  She said she was careful and handled it gently.  But when we turned it on, all it did was make a beeping noise: beep-beep … beep-beep … beep-beep … beep-beep.  Like the Looney Tunes Road Runner.  The screen stayed blank.

Of course, I immediately searched the internet (using another computer).  In no time at all, I learned that computers communicate with “beep codes” to indicate a start-up error occurring before the computer starts to communicate via the monitor screen.  In other words, when something is wrong, you might hear a beep-beep before you see a blue screen.  Different manufacturers have different codes.  For my computer, repeated sets of two beeps evidently meant there was a problem with the computer’s main memory, the RAM.  Removing the RAM boards and re-installing them seemed like a possible cheap and easy fix, so I tried that.

A few years earlier, when I initially purchased the computer, I had installed an additional RAM board, so I knew the procedure.  I unplugged the computer, unscrewed a few screws, and removed the computer’s side panel.  It was a little dusty inside, so I removed the fan and cleaned everything with a Shop-Vac.

My computer has two RAM slots, let’s call them 1 and 2, and each has a RAM board, let’s call them A and B.  I removed both boards.  Just as an experiment, I plugged in the computer and turned it on.  With no RAM at all, it was an immediate beep-beep.  I installed board A in slot 1 and turned it on.  It started normally.  I removed board A and installed board B in slot 1.  I turned it on and it started normally.  I installed board A in slot 2.  Beep-beep.  I put board B in slot 2.  Beep-beep.  No matter how I arranged things, I got the beep-beep error code whenever there was a RAM board in slot 2.

I was wondering whether I wanted to use the computer with only one RAM board (which would be half as much RAM as I had before the computer was moved, and more RAM is the best way to make your computer run smoother and faster) … or if I wanted to spend hundreds of dollars to buy a new computer.  Then I decided to try one more thing.  I removed both RAM boards and set them aside.  I got a clean paper towel and some rubbing alcohol.  I poured a little rubbing alcohol onto the paper towel and gently cleaned the RAM slots and the connectors on the RAM boards.

(Note: For cleaning electronics, use rubbing alcohol that is 90% or more pure isopropyl alcohol.  The higher the percentage of alcohol, the lower the water content — and you definitely shouldn’t be cleaning electronic equipment with water.  Most rubbing alcohol sold for household use is 50% or 70%.  You may have to shop around to find isopropyl alcohol in a purer form.  And be careful: at higher concentrations it’s even more flammable.  When using isopropyl alcohol, ensure that equipment is unplugged and you’re not near any flame.)

When I looked at the paper towel I saw a small bit of debris (maybe a tiny piece of a dried leaf?).  Had it gotten into the computer and fallen down into the RAM slot and interrupted the electrical connection?  I don’t know if it was actually causing the problem, but …

I waited for the rubbing alcohol to dry, plugged the computer in, and turned it on.  It worked perfectly and has been working fine ever since.  Hundreds of dollars saved for 15 minutes of work.

DIY Neighborhood Watch

windows_at_nightYears ago I attended a talk about safety and crime prevention given by a local police officer.  One thing he said led me to develop a habit, something I’ve done ever since.  He recommended that everyone should look out their window for a few minutes each night and call the police to report anything suspicious or out of the ordinary.  Sounded like a good idea to me.  If a lot of people do this, it adds up to many hours of crime-preventing observation.

Before I go to bed at night, I look out one of my windows for a couple minutes.  I just take a look at the street, sidewalk, parked cars (including my own), my neighbors’ houses and everything I can see.  If I see anything suspicious, I call the police on the non-emergency number.

I’ve called the police twice.  Once it was because I saw some young men driving around with a man seated on the top of the car!  Pretty weird.  I guess they were drunk or high.  Another time I saw a man walking up one side of the street and down the other, stopping and peering into parked cars.  Both the car and the man got out of sight before the police arrived, but both times I did see a police car drive by soon after I called.  Did I prevent some crime?  Maybe.

Everyone should do their part.

I Cut a Hole in my Washer

Front-loading washing machines have filters (sometimes called “coin traps”) to prevent solid objects from getting into, and possibly damaging, the pump that moves water out of the machine through the discharge hose.  These filters need to be emptied and cleaned periodically.  Some washing machines have a small door on the front that allows access to the filter.  On some washers, the filter can be easily unscrewed and removed.  On mine, the filter is inside a wide spot in a length of flexible hose leading to the pump near the front of the machine.  But it’s behind a solid front panel (no door) and the only way to get to it is to remove the front panel.  And the only way to remove the front panel is to loosen the top, move the control panel, and disconnect the door lock.  Because my dryer is stacked on top of the washer, loosening the top requires moving the dryer.  Just getting to the filter requires an absurd amount of time and effort, especially considering that the actual filter removal and cleaning takes only about 5 minutes.  Very bad product design, in my opinion.*

Because it was a “previously owned” washer when I got it, I cleaned the filter when I first installed it in my basement.  Since then, I’ve felt a little guilty about not having cleaned it for a long while, but I dreaded all the work required.  Thinking it over, it seemed that cutting a “filter-access door” in the front panel would be quicker than removing the panel as described above.  Not to mention all the work required to put it all back together.  Once done, I could clean the filter whenever I liked without all of work that would otherwise be required.

Just to be sure I would be able to cut a hole in the front panel without damaging anything inside the machine (like hoses and wires), I unplugged the washer, moved it away from the wall, partially removed the back panel and looked inside.  There was plenty of room, at least a few inches, between the filter and the front panel, enough to allow a drill or saw to penetrate without damaging any of the internal parts.

Using an electric drill, and being extra careful to penetrate as little as possible, I made 4 holes that would be the corners of my filter-access door, the dimensions of which would be about 6 inches tall and 10 inches wide.  I used the holes as starting points to make cuts connecting one hole to another.  First I used a hacksaw, but hacksawing was too slow so I switched to an electric jigsaw.  I held the jigsaw at an angle, allowing the blade to penetrate inside the machine as little as possible.  Using the jigsaw, I had the hole cut in about 5 minutes.  The edges of the hole were quite jagged, so I covered them with duct tape.  After all, I have to put my hands through it to reach the filter.

Removing the filter through my new filter-access door is still awkward work that requires lying on the floor and reaching into an area that’s difficult to see.  All things considered though, it’s a lot easier to do it through a hole in the front panel than to disassemble the front of the machine.

After a few minutes, I had the filter assembly in my hand.  Inside the coin trap (basically a plastic cup with several holes in it) I found a very corroded key, several coins, many bobby pins, and many other small bits of unidentifiable solid materials, plus lots of thread and lint.  Undoubtedly this mess of a mass was slowing the flow of water into the pump and out the discharge hose.  Also, it smelled bad and the smelly odors would have migrated up into my freshly laundered clothes as they sat in the machine after being washed.  After cleaning the filter, I reinstalled it.  Helpful hint: the hose assembly is easier to slide into place if it’s wet.

I did a load of laundry and ensured that nothing was leaking.  This was easy to do by just looking through my new filter-access door.  I can easily take a look at the machine’s insides anytime.

I used a piece of magnetic plastic whiteboard as a door cover.  Its magnetic force wasn’t enough to prevent it from sliding down as the machine vibrated when it was running, so I used two magnets (taken out of an old computer hard-drive) to hold it in place.

Overall, if you’re unlucky enough to have a washer without one, a DIY filter-access door might be something you should consider.  Be aware that doing this probably voids your warranty (not an issue for me, because mine was an on-the-curb-first-come-first-served acquisition).  Of course, anything you do is at your own risk.  I assume no liability.  You definitely shouldn’t do this if you have young children in your house.  With a door like this, they could easily get into the machine’s moving parts and could hurt themselves or damage the machine.

* Seriously, take a look:

Final note:  It might be possible to access the filter through the bottom of the machine (its bottom panel has a couple large holes, perhaps for maintenance access), but this would require removing the stacked dryer, disconnecting the water, moving the washer away from the wall and tilting it on its side.  That’s almost as much work as removing the front panel.  I still like my filter-access door.

Olive the Truth About Saving Money

Avoid convenience.  Save a lot of money.  That’s all of the truth about saving money.  Here’s an example.

olivesLast week I opened the refrigerator to find olives … in single-serving packs.  I don’t know why anyone would buy such a thing, let alone my own wife.  Maybe, (I hope) they were on sale.

Even on sale, it’s a very dumb purchase.  $2.99 for 4.8 ounces of olives is about 62¢ per ounce.  At the normal price of $3.69, it’s over 76¢ per ounce.

Compare that to a can of olives.  $1.87 for 6.0 ounces = 31¢ per ounce.  (The can contains liquid, but the 6.0 ounces is the weight of the olives.)

You want the convenience of having a little pack of olives every day?

Get some food storage containers.  Purchased in quantity, they’re about $1 each.

Open the can of olives, distribute its 6.0 ounces of olives into 5 food storage containers so that each container holds 1.2 ounces of olives.   You’ve now got 5 DIY packs of olives-to-go at a cost of about 39¢ each (including 1¢ for the cost of the food storage container, assuming you can re-use it about 100 times).

Compare that to the pre-packaged olives which cost or 92¢ per serving.  (Regular price.)

DIY and save yourself $1.82.

Remember, $1.82 saved is $1.82 earned.  Considering how much time it takes to open a can and parcel out the contents, this is a DIY job that pays over $50 per hour.

DIY Washing Machine Lint Trap

It’s a good idea to prevent lint from going down the laundry-sink drain.  You can get lint traps that attach to the end of your washing machine’s discharge hose.  They cost around a dollar each, if you buy them at your local grocery store, hardware store, or big-box home improvement store.

However, you can get them a lot cheaper (per unit) if you buy them in bulk (e.g., dozens) from a big online retailer.  That’s by far the best way to do it.  They’re a good value and worth using, considering that you’re likely to have a clogged drain if you don’t.

mesh_bags

I’ve used the store-bought lint traps for many years and been pretty happy with them.  Recently I had one that was completely filled with lint, ready for the garbage, but I didn’t have any new ones in the house.  I wondered if I could create a DIY substitute out of something I had on hand and I though of the mesh produce bags that onions and oranges (etc.) are packaged in.

I noticed that the mesh pattern of the produce bags is more widely spaced than that of the typical lint trap, so I doubled up by putting one mesh bag inside another.  Instead of using a cable tie to attach my improvised lint trap to the discharge hose, I cut a strip off the top of the mesh bag itself and twisted it into a cord, then used that to tie the bag to the hose.  You could also use a screw-type hose clamp and keep re-using it indefinitely.

The results:  The DIY produce-bag lint probably doesn’t catch as much lint as a purpose-made lint trap.  It might work better if it were tripled or quadrupled with three or even four bags.  On the other hand, it’s free.  Overall, I think it’s probably best to buy lint traps in quantity and get them for a good price.  In a pinch, though, the DIY version is definitely better than nothing.

Btw, check the internet: there are lots of DIY projects that use mesh produce bags.  I am certainly not the first person who has looked for re-uses for them.

Replacing Saddle Valve With Compression Tee

saddle_valveIf you’ve connected your refrigerator’s ice maker to one of your house’s water pipes, you probably know what a saddle valve is.  A valve that pierces a pipe with a needle held in place with a clamp bolted onto the pipe.  Saddle valves are cheap and easy, but they are not reliable.  They are prone to fail, either due to leaking or getting clogged with sediment.

I had one in my house, which I installed years ago when I was young and foolish.  It worked for several years, but eventually the refrigerator stopped making ice and dispensing water.  Evidently, the saddle valve was partially blocked and the refrigerator’s valves, which open electrically to fill the ice maker and dispense cold water, couldn’t function with the lower pressure.

It was tempting to just replace the old saddle valve with a new one, but I wanted something better.  A copper tee soldered in place is the best way to hook up an ice maker to a water line.  But … I’ve never soldered anything and I felt that the needed equipment would be too expensive for one job.

sioux_chief_add_a_line

Researching the problem led me to learn about compression connections.  Compression connections have a threaded ends with nuts that compress ferrules (wide copper rings) as the nuts are screwed tight.  They may not be as good as soldered connections, but they are far better than saddle valves.

Compression fittings aren’t easy to find.  The big box home improvement stores stock a lot of push-to-connect fittings (e.g., Sharkbite), which I was about to use, until I read the fine print on the label: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”  Given that this line is for water that’s going to my ice maker, and then into me, I figured that I didn’t want to take the risk.  Internet research showed me that what I needed was a compression tee made by Sioux Chief.  As the big box stores didn’t have them, I ordered one from a big website retailer.

Installing the tee was fairly easy, just a bit awkward due to the location up in the basement’s ceiling joists.  (Which is another reason I didn’t want to solder; the pipe is just inches away from wood beams and electrical wiring.)  After turning off the water, opening the faucet in the basement sink to drain the pipes, removing the old saddle valve, and cleaning the pipe with some steel wool, … I cut out a properly-sized section of pipe right where the saddle value used to be.  Because the saddle valve left a hole in the pipe, there wasn’t much of a choice as to the location of the new tee: either put the tee where the saddle valve had been or if I wanted to put the tee somewhere else, I would have to repair the hole.  Using a plumber’s tube cutter would have made the job easier and would have yielded a straighter cut, but I couldn’t find the tube cutter that I think I have.  I’ve never used it before.  (I got it along with a lot of tools I bought at the Goodwill.)  So I used a hacksaw, being especially careful to make a nice straight cut, i.e., a straight cup perpendicular to the pipe.  The first cut was easiest.  The second cut was a bit more difficult because the remaining pipe was apt to wiggle after it had been cut free.  I wanted to have both my hands on the hacksaw, so I used the old saddle valve clamp (after removing the valve and needle parts) to help hold the pipe steady and guide the saw.  I added the clamp, bolts, and nuts to my ever-growing store of parts.

Once the cut was made, I sanded the pipe ends with some extra-fine sandpaper to get everything clean and smooth, then I cleaned everything with a paper towel.  I slid the nuts and ferrules over the pipe ends and then slipped the tee in place.  Many sources warn against over-tightening compression fittings.  But none of them say exactly what that means.  I got the nuts on the compression tee good and tight and attached the line to the ice maker.  Then I turned on the water.  Everything worked fine, but over the next hour a small droplet of water appeared on the bottom of the pipe.  It was never enough to actually drop to the floor.  I tightened the nuts a bit more and after that the pipes stayed completely dry.  That’s a funny thing about compression fittings: you look on the internet for advice and everyone says compression fittings have to be tight, so they don’t leak … but not too tight, because that will ruin them.  Of course, there’s no way to measure “tight” that’s right as opposed to “too tight”.  It seems that tightening it as much as you can without overly straining, getting a small leak, and then tightening just a bit more and making sure the leak has stopped is as good a method as any.

The best thing is that the refrigerator’s ice maker and water dispenser started working again.  In fact, they work better than before.  There’s more water pressure, so the dispenser fills a glass more quickly than it ever did before.

I’m quite glad to have a better connection for the refrigerator line, with a real valve that will actually turn the water off if need be.  (Like, for example, hooking up a new refrigerator.)

Naturally, the money spent for the compression tee was a fraction of what a plumber would have charged.  It’s true that a compression tee isn’t as good as a soldered tee, but time will tell if it’s a good value.  [Update: 60 days later: still working fine, no sign of any leak.]