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Archive for February, 2007

Another easy recipe

February 27th, 2007 at 05:37 am

I saw a recipe the other day for a popular Chinese dish, spicy stir fry tofu (mapo dofu). The nice thing about this dish is that you could easily make this vegetarian by substituting mushrooms instead of ground pork. Also, this is as a vegetarian dish this one packs a lot of protein! You can also adjust the hotness to your tastes; me, I like it sinus-clearing hot, especially for times like today when my nose is a wee bit stuffy. Anyway, here it is (with relative quantities):

-Heat a skillet of oil, then stir fry a handful of peppercorns until fragrant. Remove, leaving behind the fragrant oil.

-Toss in a handful of chopped ginger and garlic; stirfry until fragrant, then add in the ground pork or mushrooms.

-Add in a block of firm tofu, cut into squares. Gently stir them in with the other ingredients.

-Tilt the pan so you have a cleared area, then add in about two spoonfuls of soy sauce (dark) and stir fry this until fragrant.

-Add in chili garlic sauce (I prefer either the Chinese brand called "Ha ha sauce"- yes, that is the name- or the Vietnamese Siracha sauce with the rooster on the plastic bottle) and stir fry that a bit, then lay the skillet flat and mix all ingredients together.

-Add in cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken the sauce.

Enjoy!

The good, the bad, and....

February 26th, 2007 at 04:09 pm

The Good: Got two rebates this past weekend, and not just for a couple of bucks; one was the long awaited Comcast rebate for $89.95, the other was $26 for a flash drive. Nothing like more money in the bank.

The Bad: Was this close to making a purchase online at smartbargains.com. They're having a suit and shoe sale, and I actually do need a suit for spring/summer, but geez, three items in the cart and it's already zooming upwards of $200. The only thing that prevented me from making the purchase was the 15% coupon code I tried to use wouldn't work. So I didn't buy anything....which might actually be construed as "good." But this just goes to show, it takes months to save but mere minutes to spend.

And now, The Ugly: My electricity bill came and it was $189. No joke. For my ridiculously small apartment. I had been trying to get away with not using the heater, but when I started shivering while in bed (and bundled beneath two comforters, a flannel blanket and my heaviest winter coat) I started keeping the temp at 62. I did raise it as high as 65 when my parents visited (and they still complained about the cold), but basically have kept it somewhere from 60-62. What this month's elec. bill is telling me is, in order to keep my apartment at a temperature that is barely tolerable, then I have to pay the price. And what a painful price to pay....

(I did do the plastic window wrap thing, blocked the draft beneath the front door, in case you were wondering. Is it possible there's just something intrinsically wrong with the heater itself, and could I ask the maintenance to "fix" it- whatever needs to be fixed?)

I miss North Carolina!

Hey Readers!

February 21st, 2007 at 05:47 pm

Hi, my name is Peg and I am a reader. I will read any book that's lying around. Even if there are no boks handy, I will read anything as long as it has words- cereal boxes, junk mail, the ingredients in my toothpaste. Hehe.

Because of work, I cannot get to the library during the week and heck, it's even hard to make the trip during the weekends, but for all my fellow readers out there- there's hope! To my great surprise, there are many websites offering free online books- a lot of the great literary classics can be found. My favorite is bibliomania which I stumbled upon while trying to find a copy of "Dubliners" by James Joyce (yup, it's on that site). The site also has poetry and plays, as well as some handy reference books in case you want to look up that obscure word or try and remember who said what quote.

I could probably spend hours absorbed in reading (and rereading) many books online, but sometimes you just don't have the time. Which is why dailylit is the perfect solution. Enter your email address and choose a book, and each day you will receive a "fragments" of that book. These portions are perfect when you have 10-15 minute break and just want to read a little bit. Reached a cliffhanger? Don't despair, you can have the next fragment sent immediately.

Lastly, I must must MUST mention paperbackswap. I love websites that promote sharing and fellowship among a community with common interests, and paperbackswap lives up to it's name. Imagine a communual bookshelf that is accessible to the entire US. Members list their books and then you browse other peoples' bookshelves and request whichever books catch your eye, and then that member mails their book to you! It's that simple, but of course, the concept works because of karma; you must actively post AND mail books in order to receive credit to ask other members for their books. This site is especially good for catching up on the bestsellers, since they tend to be volatile and constantly requested and reposted for others to request. There have been too many times I've purchased a "beach/vacation" reading book and ended up donating it to the library or trying to sell it at a garage sale. With paperbackswap, it's nice to be able to exchange my book for one that I want to read...or maybe even keep. If you join paperbackswap then look me up (I'm "paigu"). I don't have as much books on my shelf now, but I'm planning to list more.

Well, I've certainly given you lots to read. Here's what's up on my "To Be Read" list:
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Happy reading!

Another Happy New Year

February 19th, 2007 at 11:46 am

Sunday, February 18th, was Chinese New Year. Since my parents have decided I'm now an adult (agh!) then I did not receive the traditional "red envelope" lucky money, which is fine with me, honestly. I have more bad memories of me as a kid, gawping at how my older sister would receive more than me, because she was older. I think my fussing was the reason my mom became the person who collected the lucky money for us kids!

Anyway, 2007 will be the year of the Pig. Rather than being seen as sloppy and filthy, the pig is actually thought of rather fondly in our culture. My mom showed me that the Chinese character for "house" is actually a combination of the words "roof" and "pig." Hmmm....so home is where the pig is, hehe.

According to my mom, this is going to be a so-so year for people financially (the pig brings wealth upon people but the money will be spent quickly on frivolous items). I thought that was pretty interesting, at least for me, because my goal this year is to save enough for a decent down payment on a house. So in reality, I will be hoping to just break-even this year, too. Hope I can control my habits and focus on "paying the pig" as in, the piggy bank!

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Chinese New Year to all, and Best Luck with Health, Happiness, and Fortune!

Bank of America is Crazy

February 16th, 2007 at 06:43 am

I wrote this entry about Bank of America, not as a rant but more as an FYI that banks are not out to be your best friends.

Bank of America must have read it and decided they wanted to win me over. Because they've been giving me not one, not two....but FOUR bonus checks for opening a new account, when I should only have received one.

I've never had a really bad experience with BoA; I certainly don't *love* them, but they have so many branches in the towns I've lived in that I decided to stay with them out of convenience. Now they're giving me all these bonuses and it makes me happy, sure, but then I think, "What sort of wonky tracking system do they have on their computers????"

Being the honest person (yes, my conscience kills me) I actually called BoA service rep after receiving the third and fourth checks. The most recent call was, in fact, last night. The rep did her thing on the computer (who knows, maybe she was playing Doom or Minesweeper) and then asked me did I, in fact open a new account? I told her, yes, and then she was like, "Well, those are your bonuses!" She clearly was of the mindset that I was a nutter, but after I'd asked my barrage of questions to cofirm that these bonuses were legit and did not contain hidden traps (such as signing me up for some credit card or "protection" services or marketing scheme) she pretty much said, "If you insist, then we can deduct the amounts from your account."

And I decided to just keep the money.

Stay tuned for any updates in case Bank of America decides to pull a 180 on me and demand a refund!

Gas Station Tried to Rip Me Off

February 15th, 2007 at 06:11 am

There are three gas stations that I pass on the way back home; since all are along the same street, they tend to have the same prices. However, the Mobil's in my area (and it seems throughout New Jersey) have been converted into a brand called Valero. To attract more business, they've been having discounted gas, sometimes 5-10 cents less than the competitors.

Recently, I went to fill up my gas tank, in anticipation of the snow storms. I chose the "new" Valero station since it was 5 cents cheaper than the other stations on the road. I paid by credit, since my card offers rewards for gas purchases, and the transaction went as usual. While waiting, I witnessed an exchange where a lady came up to the attendant and said, "Remember me?" The guy sort of grunted. The lady went on to say, "You double charged me last week for XX dollars, remember? I thought we'd cleared it up but I checked with my bank and now it turns out you've charged me AGAIN."

Though my ears caught the gist of their argument, I can't say it set off any warning bells. Maybe I am naive but I figure credit/debit mistakes happen, but the chances of them happening are pretty low, so this was just another isolated incident. Well, a few days ago, I went online to check my credit card balance and saw two identical charges for something weird called "Diamond Express" and both charges were for the amount of my last fillup. After I realized "Diamond" was in fact Valero/Mobil, I thought, how ironic.... I decided to go to the gas station the next day to try to resolve this.

I approached the attendant: "Excuse me, sir, remember me?" He sort of played dumb but when I shoved the receipt in his face, his expression changed into the "Oh, s***, not again" guilty look. We went in the office where he allegedly canceled the double transaction, but I was on pins and needles all day, waiting to rush home to check whether the cancelation came through on my credit card. It did. Whew.

Since gas stations are indepedently owned and operated, I'm not advocating to boycot ALL Mobil/Valero stations- just ranting against this particular station. I will encourage people to double check their gas receipts. I've noticed nowadays that you don't need to sign for many gas transactions which then causes many people to stop paying attention to the total price. Add to that the fact that drivers don't pump their own gas in NJ and you increase the chances someone won't pay attention to how much that gas fillup really cost.

Stay alert. Or do as my parents have always encouraged me to do, which is to pay for gas with $$cash.

Some Recipes

February 11th, 2007 at 07:06 am

My parents came to visit for a few days. My tiny apartment was bursting at the seams trying to accomodate three people, but we're all family so it was ok stepping on each others' toes for a couple of days.

As I like to joke, whenever they come visit, my dad requests I cook for them, not because I'm some world-renowned Chef, but I think he just wants to taste a change in cooking styles. I do like cooking, but I also like finding shortcuts to reduce the prep time. So my recipes do tend to change at spur of the moment, depending on whatever materials are on hand. Here are some easy Chinese and Taiwanese dishes that you can try:

Pork and Daikon Soup
So simple to make in large quantities. Take a quantity of pork chop, cut up in small pieces. Throw in boiling water for a minute or two, then turn off the heat. Skim off the junk that floats on top of the water, then return to full boil. Reduce heat, add in daikon (white carrot) that is cut up in chunks. Cook until daikon is clear. Add salt to taste. The flavor comes from the meat and the bone.

San bei ji (3-cup chicken)
The traditional method is to cook the chicken in an earthenware pot but I made do in a regular skillet. You really have to cook the chicken for 1-2hrs over low heat to achieve the perfect tenderness. The name of the dish derives from the 3 main flavourings which are 1 cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine, but let me tell you, my poor stomach gurgles at the thought of that much oil going into the dish so I admit that I sometimes use less oil and more rice wine. Or use more soy sauce if you like the saltiness. Or just add more water. You need enough liquid to cover the chicken. Anyway, first you braise the chicken a bit, then you pour in the liquids. Now as to the rest of the flavors, I like to add basil, ginger and hot peppers. Bring to boil, cover the pot, let cook on low heat until chicken is of desired tenderness or you are too hungry to wait.

Si zi tou (Lion's head meatballs)
I used to call this Chinese meatloaf, much to my mom's chagrin. She only uses pork and a little chopped scallion but I am more, errrr, creative in my choice of filling. Ground pork is the staple of the filling, but then I chop up dried shrimps, bok choy, and once I added tofu (the result: meatballs were more tender, chewy, because the tofu added more water content). I loved making this dish because you got to play with your hands- plus shaping the meatballs by hand really speeds up the process! Braise the meatballs in a skillet using a little oil, then add some more water to cover the bottom of the skillet. Then here comes my mom's favorite part (she's a veggie fanatic) she puts in lots of leaves of bok choy or any sort of lettuce. Cover the skillet and let cook for 5-10 minutes.

"Ketchup" Fish
Well, actually, I read somewhere that ketchup is a Chinese invention. Really! The original sauce, which was not tomato-based, used in Asia contained rather fishy ingredients and fish/shellfish brine. The tomato got added at some later time. Anyway, for this dish you do use the tomatoey Heinz ketchup, mixed with soy sauce. As my mom likes to call it, "a little sweet, a little salty." I just think it results in a cool color. Marinade fish fillets in combination ketchup, soy sauce, ginger, scallion, and cornstarch. Stir fry, preferably with some bright green bell peppers to make a beautiful contrasting dish.

Still saving

February 7th, 2007 at 05:58 am

Bitterly cold temperatures and gusting winds have significantly hindered my running schedule. Ok, so I'd much rather be in bed than outside running at 6AM. I've switched to doing some pilates DVDs at night instead....but I miss the running.

Anyway, that means no contributions to the $20 through running, but I recently sold two CDs on half.com so I'll add that to the challenge:

Previous total = $74.70
CD sales = $13.62
New total = $88.32

Move over, Elmo DMX, Here come Toy ATMs

February 6th, 2007 at 10:52 am

My parents and I recently received, via email, a rather unusual request from my older sister. She wrote, "(when you come visit in May) do you think you can bring that popular toy ATM? The kids would love it." An ATM?? Did my little nephews and niece not want a PS3 or Elmo-3000 (or whatever its called) instead? Befuddled, I conducted a quick google search and discovered much to my surprise that the toy ATM was one of the most popular toys for Christmas 2006.

Reading into the article, I noticed some points that were a cause of much concern:

"Unlike in a real ATM, a cash drawer opens in the toy ATM, allowing an avaricious child to grab every last cent and run." Hoooooo boy, I'm sure the writer of the article meant that to be tongue-in-cheek humorous, but I sure don't like the image of a bunch of greedy little kids. But, as the inventor of the toy, Michael Searl, points out, "If nothing else, we are teaching them one simple concept: You gotta make money before you take money out." In other words, ATM doesn't automatically put money in your account; money has to be put into ATM by a human being, first.

The question is: Who's going to provide that money?

According to the item's description at the Toys "R" Us website, the toy ATM is meant for ages 8 and up. Hmmm, as I recall, I was still a pigtailed grade school kid at that age, more concerned with making friends than making money. Then again, kids these days are maturing at a (frighteningly) rapid rate. But still, the minimum work age is years beyond the tender age of 8. Thus, the main source of "income" for an 8 yr old is gonna be.....dear Mom and Dad.

Yes, despite claims that the toy ATM will teach kids financial responsibility, it's still going to be up to parents to enforce good financial habits upon their kids. Ideally, the child will perform some chore or task. Mom and dad will "reward" them with an allowance. The child would then take it and deposit it into the ATM. Later, when the child needs money, he/she will go to the toy ATM instead of to Mom and Dad.

Yeah, right. How many people instead see the following scenario develop? Child gets a rather overwhelming allowance from mom and dad, for doing nothing. Child races to the ATM toy to deposit the money, is not satisfied with the balance displayed, and runs back to demand more money from mom and dad. Why? Not just because child needs those Air Jordans, but because child feels "entitled" to more. Child sees ATM as money-access vehicle to be kept full by mom and dad.

Maybe I have a rather negative POV; my opinion is skewwed since I do not have children. But here's what I think needs to be done in order for a child to fully benefit from playing with the ATM toy. Mom and dad need to teach the child how much money is "enough" for the child. Somehow, parents should instill in the child a realistic view of how much money the kid needs, not how much he/she wants. For example, if the child sometimes stops by the Wawa for a snack, then having $10-$20 in their ATM toy should be a sufficient. If the kid is whining, then parents might show the kid the cost of monthly utilities and mortgage, compare that to junior's weekly hot dog and soda budget.

If parents avoid making their own "contributions" in excess of what their kids earn to the toy ATM- if the child is given full responsibility for what goes IN (and thus comes out) to the ATM- then perhaps the toy can be effective in teaching kids that in order to spend money....you gotta save it, first.

Think twice before you "Keep the Change"

February 5th, 2007 at 07:08 am

You might've seen the Bank of America commercials for their "Keep the Change" promotion. You know, that annoying commercial where the happy shiney people hand over their debit card to pay for purchases, and then do this rather sensual, clandestine little touching-of-fingers move. I have the feeling Bank of America purposefully uses the cutsey handplay motion to distract viewers into thinking this "Keep the Change" promotion is a better deal than it is in reality.

Face it; any sort of bank deals always have some sort of catch. The bank isn't out to give you a bunch of free money, as the "keep the change" advertising may lead you to believe. Instead, the bank is simply trying to pocket more of your money. Think about it. The way the promotion works is, if your total purchase is $3.58, the bank will round up and debit $4.00 from your checkings, then automatically deposit the 0.42 cents in change into your savings account. Essentially, instead of having the loose coins rattling in your pockets, they go straight into the bank.

As my mom pointed out, psychologically, this concept works really well for some. Some people don't keep track of all their loose coins (re: dropped coins), so it is a better deal to have the bank keep track of those pennies and dimes. For those who would otherwise might have lost those coins, it would impress them to watch their savings balance "grow."

Note that Bank of America regular savings account earns a pithy interest rate of 0.20%, which is pretty much equivalent to keeping the coins in your pocket. However, at the end of the year, you'll earn 5% interest on the cumulative change- NOT on your total balance, say, if you originally had $500 deposited into your account. Still, considering how much ends up going into the ol' coin jar at home, then it might be nice to earn that extra 5% interest...provided you can keep your hands out of that savings account during the year.

One very attractive prospect that might push you to enroll is, during the first three months, Bank of America is price-matching your change. Now, this is an actual "free money" offer (not 100% free since it will be reported as 1099-INT) that might be worth taking advantage. If you were sly enough to purchase an item for $1.01, then Bank of America would be forced to price-match and add in 0.99 to your savings. That's almost like getting your full cashback. Purchase something for $2.02, get 0.98 from the bank, which means you ended up spending $1.04, or ~50% off the original price. Spend $10.05, get 0.95 from the bank, bringing the original price down to $9.10....you get the idea.

In conclusion, "Keep the Change" is more a way to reallocate money than an actual money-making scheme. Instead of taking change out of your pocket and then having it spent or scattered to the winds, it goes automatically back into the bank. The alleged "savings" is really your own money, just being held in the relative safety of the bank instead of lying in the car cupholder. But if you are good about keeping track of loose change then those coins might be better off in your pocket. And if you are a "cash only" person in the first place, then "Keep the Change" is definitely not for you since it involves debit/credit card usage.

New Uses for Old Clutter

February 3rd, 2007 at 05:16 am

Clutter, junk, "stuff"- it happens. It accumulates almost on its own and takes over a closet or bookshelf as quickly as ants swarm upon a dropped piece of candy. Usually, you realize you're running out of space when you go searching for someplace to put more clutter. What to do? You can always toss it. Or donate it. Or you can find a way to reuse it. Here, I list some uncommon ways to deal with clutter:

Clothing-
Old "reuse" Donate or consign.
New "reuse" Cut up into cleaning rags. Sure, if you don't hem them, then those rags are going to fall apart very quickly, but that's why they're called "rags" in the first place. And there's nothing more convenient to have some lying around in the garage while changing the motor oil, or to have in the playroom when kids are painting.

Paper-
Old "reuse" Write/scribble on the backs.
New "reuse" Fold your own envelopes. Even better, learn origami or the art of paper folding. Amaze kids (the ones I babysit for are endlessly amused by me making paper boxes) and family, and maybe even make some pretty, original art pieces to display proudly in your house. No one has to know it was made from an ad you got in the mail.

Pens-
Old "reuse" Stick them anywhere you can think of- in the car, in your purse, in the office- for those unexpected "let me jot that down" moments.
New "reuse" Not for the faint of heart (and not exactly for everyday usage) but you could learn how to perform a tracheotomy.

For the rest of us, ladies, you can use a pen as hair accessory: Gather hair into a low ponytail. Hold a pen at the part where the elastic would go and begin twisting hair around the pen, like you're starting a bun. Make the bun tighter by turning the pen clockwise/counterclockwise (hair gets automatically twisted in the process). Weave the pen in and out of the forming bun to set it.

You can also learn how to spin a pen around your fingers. Just don't do it during meetings because your clients will pay more attention to the circus act rather than your contract negotiations.

Books-
Old "reuse" Ahh, books. You've already donated boxloads to the library, attempted to resell them at garage sales for 25 cents a pop, or traded them with friends like Pokeman cards.
New "reuse" There are lots of book-trading websites to be found, including bookcrossing where you "release" a book into the wild, leave a message of where you left it, and wait for someone to go pick it up. There's even a neat hunting/tracking feature so you can see oh where oh where has your little book been.
Paperbackswap is another book exchange site. For just the price of mailing, you can swap books; mailing books earns you good karma, or points, which allows you to request books from other members. From my experience, this site works quite well for best-sellers and what I would call "beach reads," or the popular books that you read when you (or your mind) are on vacation.

Happy decluttering!

A Day (or two) with No Cell Phones

February 1st, 2007 at 06:39 am

I am on my parents' Family Plan for mobile service. They recently chose to upgrade all our phones, so my "old" but awesome phone (caller ID and no frills, that's all I ask for) no longer works (except to dial 911). I have been cellphone-free since Tuesday and I can't say I mind terribly.

I'm one who actually doesn't like talking on the phone. Most of my conversations are short and just for confirming plans I'd made with friends via email. Long distance friends, well, it's sometimes easier to contact them via IM or just keep in touch by sending them photos. If my parents had not been so generous, I most likely would have gone onto a plan for less minutes, or even purchased a pay-as-you-go phone.

I won't vilify cell phones entirely. In an emergency situation, they are a handy, quick way to get help. As a single female who is terrible with car repairs, I have the constant worry that I'll be stuck in a situation where my car breaks down in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. That's one of the main reasons I feel I need to have a phone.

But that over-reliance that some people seem to have for their mobile phones- the people who always seem to have a phone glued to their ear in the car- that's just not me. So these past few days of being without a cellphone have not exactly been eye-opening or torture, but rather affirmation that yes, I don't need a cell phone.