Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Recipe: Coconut Chickpea Curry

I often have a hard time finding vegetarian recipes that I like, but this one is fantastic. It was given to me by a coworker who says he throws it together on busy nights and heats it up by the fire when he goes camping. I've found that one batch makes 4-6 servings, depending on the meal, and it freezes beautifully. The ingredients are inexpensive, and the recipe is quite forgiving when it comes to amounts. Tweak it to your own idea of perfection.

Some notes on ingredients

Coconut milk is known for its high fat content, but lighter varieties are available, and the rest of this meal has so much to offer. Tomatoes, for example, are known for retaining their nutritional value throughout the canning process, and actually contain higher amounts of lycopene, a cancer-busting antioxidant, when cooked than when raw. Legumes and rice compliment each other, creating a whole protein that means you won't leave the table feeling hungry. And garlic, one of my favourite flavours, is not only good for your heart and blood, but it also rids your intestines of foreign bacteria and parasites. All in all, this recipe gives great value for your money.

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 tbsp curry paste (or curry powder to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp each ground cardamom, cumin, coriander
  • 1 can chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1 can tomatoes, diced or whole
  • 1 can coconut milk
  1. Sauté onion until translucent, 5 or 6 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, curry paste and spices, and cook for another 2 minutes.
  2. Add chickpeas and tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes or until slightly thickened, breaking up whole tomatoes with the back of your spoon.
  3. Stir in can of coconut milk.
  4. Serve over rice, and pair with a dark green vegetable (steamed broccoli or sautéed spinach are favourites of mine).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Hard Pull

I am excited to learn that there are two types of credit checks that can be done on an individual's credit report: The hard pull and the soft. In a fantastic post at My Money Blog, Jonathan writes:
Money geek slang, who knew? A credit check, also known as credit pull or credit inquiry, is (logically) when a third party wants to examine at your credit history.

The key here, as explained in the article, linked from The Simple Dollar is that a hard pull, often used when opening a new credit card account, sows up as a temporary -5 point demerit in the Byzantine occult world or FICO scores. A soft pull results in no demerit nor is it visible by others.

I remember I got a cryptic electronic call from a company with no phone number and a threat to pay them $50 via a cheque in the mail. No explanation was given why. I Googled the company name (a local company) and called their local line asking to be called back. I received no response except identical and daily automated calls. I reported the event to the local police thinking it was telephone fraud. As a result I found out they were a credit collections firm looking to get a $50 parking ticket paid.

I paid the city directly for the forgotten ticket but later found a ~5 hard pull on my record from them. I have a feeling it was out of spite. My lesson? Pay your parking tickets. Theirs? If they learn it, tell the creditor who you are and why you want $50. Also, leave your phone number.

I wish there was a way to give their record a demerit.

Recipe: Awesome fruit crisp (blackberry, strawberry apple & pear)

Fresh, inexpensive berries are one of the joys of summer. Last grocery shop, I saw blackberries on sale and I just couldn't resist ... unfortunately, when I got them home and tasted them, they were sour. I was very disappointed. They were too sour to eat, but I didn't want to waste them. I toyed with the idea of making a blackberry vinaigrette for a salad, but after seeing that the strawberries we had were going soft, I decided to instead make a fruit crisp. I didn't have enough of any one fruit to do it, so I resolved to use up the sour blackberries, soft strawberries, a couple of apples and a tin of pears that had been sitting too long in the cupboard.

It is amazingly good. Oh my, I love it so much. Crisps are one of my favourite desserts, but the flavours of the mixed fruits are even better than my beloved apple-only crisps.

Anyway, here's the recipe, typed between mouthfuls of crunchy, fruity goodness:


  • 2 peeled, sliced apples
  • 1 can pears (sliced)
  • 1 cup blackberries (sliced in half)
  • 1 cup (or so) sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (or other nuts)
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Dash of powdered ginger
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Layer fruit in greased baking dish, apples & pears on the bottom and berries on top. Sprinkle with sugar and 2 tbsp flour
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine dry ingredients of topping. Add melted butter and stir until crumbly. Spoon the topping over the fruit in the baking dish
  4. Bake 30-40 minutes

Monday, May 14, 2007

Requiem for a Blog

Where do the old websites go to die? I was asked to delete a work-related technical / product information blog today. It was a nice site with a lot of information and resources. I built it over the last few years but now it is gone. The site had 2000 visits a month in a niche market of a niche market. It was free but it sold product and saved me hours each month in technical sercvice duties. Oh well.

'Cute' veggies cost more, waste less

Since our Miniature Schnauzer Wagner was a puppy, we have fed him baby carrots as treats instead of processed meat-flavoured snacks so we don't have to worry about accidentally fattening him up (the idea is from a dog-training book). Wagner loves his baby carrots (as well as snap peas, apples and pears), and since we also take baby carrots in our work lunches and eat them for snacks, it simplifies our shopping.

Since baby carrots are such a staple in our house, I was very interested to see Wisebread.com's recent post about the origins of the treat:

For those of you who don't know, baby carrots aren't really baby carrots. I was surprised at how many people didn't know that when the topic came up at work the other day. I suppose it's an easy mistake to make - baby carrots are small, they're sweet, and... well, they're small. And they're called BABY. Isn't that enough?

Baby carrots are not young carrots, but rather small pieces of carrots that are chopped and whittled down to look like small carrots. They are peeled, and washed, and insanely convenient. USA Today featured an article a couple of years ago about the origin of the baby carrot, and I have to say, I'm impressed.

The story of the baby carrot is an interesting study in contrasts. The baby carrot is the brain child of Mike Yurosek, a Californian farmer who was weary of throwing away tons of carrots every year because they wouldn't sell. Anyone who has ever grown carrots in their garden knows that carrots don't always grow in perfect shapes. Some are bumpy and lumpy and ugly, and even if they taste wonderful, they won't sell in a supermarket if they don't fit that ideal carrot shape.


In 1986, Yurosek came up with the idea of taking the ugly carrots and cutting them into small pieces of more or less uniform appearance.

First he had to cut the culls into something small enough to make use of their straight parts. "The first batch we did, we did in a potato peeler and cut them by hand," Yurosek says. Then he found a frozen-food company that was going out of business and bought an industrial green-bean cutter, which just happened to cut things into 2-inch pieces. Thus was born the standard size for a baby carrot.

Next, Yurosek sent one of his workers to a packing plant and loaded the cut-up carrots into an industrial potato peeler to take off the peel and smooth down the edges. What he ended up with was a little rough but still recognizable as the baby carrot of today.

What is interesting is that the rejected knobbly carrots, once peeled, whittled down to uniform chunks and dressed up as 'baby' carrots then sell for much more than the homely full-sized carrots at the grocery store. What begins as a frugal idea by the farmer turns into a money-waster for frugal consumers. Baby carrots do save prep time, but if you're committed to frugal shopping, it does make much more sense to buy a big bag of regular carrots and peel & chop them yourself.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Making sense of RESPs

While I'm waiting for my baby son to make his appearance (overdue by a day now ... tsk tsk ... naughty baby), I'm spending my time baking, cleaning, reading, napping and planning for our family's financial future. I'm too huge to move around much, and I figure it'll be months before I'll be well-rested enough to think clearly about these things, so I'm trying to make my plans before the new baby-craziness sets in.

Anyway, among the financial issues on my mind is baby's college fund. Will and I would like our baby to avoid starting his working life with a pile of student loan debt, so we plan to set up an RESP (Registered Educational Savings Plan) pretty much as soon as the baby's born to take advantage of the government's 20% matching plan (up to $400 each year) and the fact that the RESP is sheltered from capital gains tax until the money is withdrawn. The idea is that when your kid withdraws the money for school, his income will be so low that he'll avoid paying some or all of the withdrawal tax.

RESPs are a bit tricky though, with all the rules. This is where the PFosphere steps in and clarifies things for those of us who are wrestling with complicated explanations on the government's and banks' websites.

Frugal Canadian has a great summary of the advantages and disadvantages of RESPs, and some info on what happens when you cash out:
  • Income generated on your contributions are tax deferred. This means, you do not pay tax on the income that's earned from the contributions while the funds are in the plan(up to 20+ years of untaxed growth)
  • Up to $7,200 of free money --The Feds give a 20% Canada Education Savings Grant matched up to $400/year. Additional incentives available for low income families and the Province of Alberta.
  • Payments of accumulated income are usually made to the child when they have little to no income(since they are a student) and therefore minimal taxes are due.
  • Contributions to an RESP do not result in a tax deduction on the contributors return. This is a common misconception and is NOT the case.
  • Contribution limit is $4000/year for the beneficiary(aka. the child) to a maximum of $42,000 lifetime. This means that if you have grandparents that want to contribute you as a parent, have to share the $4000 each year. Overcontributions are penalized.
Vancouver Dad has done some of the calculations on how to maximize your RESP:
    1. Contribute the maximum $42,000 to the RESP
    2. Receive the maximum $7,200 in CESGs (Ed. note: Canada Educational Savings Grant - the 20% match I mentioned earlier)
    3. Get the money into the RESP as quickly as possible to maximize the tax-free growth in the plan

    To accomplish this, do the following: Contribute $4,000 a year for the first three years of the child’s life ($12,000), then contribute $2,000 a year up to an including the year in which the child reaches age 17 ($30,000 more, for a total of $42,000).

    This strategy will both enable you to maximize the contributions to the RESP, and net you the full $7,200 in free CESG money from the government (18 years X $400 = $7,200). It will also get money into the RESP as fast as possible, allowing it the maximum time to grow.

    Now the tough part is that you have to balance your RESP contributions with your own retirement fund, not to mention paying down mortgage and other debts. Depending on your income and spending/savings habits, balancing these needs could be tricky. But the last thing you want is to pour all your savings into your kids' college fund, but then have to rely on them to support both you and their own families if you didn't save enough for your retirement.

    To save $4,000 a year, you'd have to bank $333 per month, which is difficult to do in the first year if you take the full allowable maternity & parental leave. I don't think we'll be able to contribute that much right away, but we will start with what we can afford and increase the amount we're saving when we're both back at work full-time. If we have more kids, I don't know that we'll be able to contribute that much for each of them. In that case, we will probably set our goal to save enough for each child to complete at least the first two years of a university degree or technical program at a community college; if they want to continue with further education, it will be up to them to get scholarships and/or save for the tuition.

    Finally, speaking of RESPs, there's a bit of debate on whether to participate in a savings program like the Canadian Scholarship Trust. Canadian Capitalist recommends against participating in such a program, because there are high fees attached, and if you don't contribute every year you forfeit participation (unless you pay back the 'missed' fees later). Instead, Canadian Capitalist recommends going with something like TD Canada's RESP options, which allow parents to choose mutual funds, index funds or a self-directed investment program. According to CC, TD's eFunds offer some of the lowest fund administration fees in Canada.

    My stepson is already set up with a group savings RESP plan (similar to Canadian Scholarship Trust I think) which we need to reactivate by paying the missed monthly dues. Given the six-year age difference between the kids, we will probably go for separate RESPs for them rather than combining it, as the money must be paid out by the oldest recipient's 21st birthday (baby will be 15 by that point). I'm leaning towards a TD RESP account, probably tied to the Canadian Index or a balanced moderate-risk mutual fund (though this should be converted to a steadier, more boring investment when baby hits his teens in case of a market crash).

    According to Canadian Capitalist, it'll take a few months to get the necessary paperwork (birth certificate & social insurance number) to set up an RESP, so we have a little more time to make a decision.

    A frugal way to bank your baby's cord blood

    If you've read a parenting magazine targeted at expecting moms recently, you've no doubt seen page after page of ads for umbilical cord blood banks touting the benefits of storing your child's cord blood so the stem cells can be harvested later on should your kid develop a scary disease like leukemia or sickle cell disease.

    Cord blood banks freeze blood remaining in the umbilical cord after the birth of a baby. Stem cells in the cord blood are then used for research and treatment of cancer and certain blood diseases. The odds are slim, however, that your child will actually need the banked blood, and the peace of mind you might get from knowing it's available 'just in case' isn't cheap.

    Via Vancouver Dad:
    First of all, the price tag for freezing cord blood is about $1,000 CDN, plus an extra $120 or more per year to keep it frozen in liquid nitrogen. Second, there are very few private cord blood banks in Canada. Third, there’s only a one in 20,000 chance a given child would ever need to use his own cord blood in the future.
    One alternative, which I unfortunately didn't find out about until it was too late in my pregnancy, is to register with Canada's only public cord blood bank. Instead of indulging in an expensive and somewhat selfish storage plan, registering with the public bank allows your baby's cord blood to be available to any Canadian child who needs those stem cells. While the odds are slim your baby will need to use that cord blood, they're pretty good that someone's baby will benefit from you taking a minute to fill out those forms. Best of all, it's free to participate.

    Despite the potential for disease treatment, cord blood is thrown away after birth unless you arrange to store it well in advance of your baby's birth. If you want to do it, you need to submit the forms by your 34th week of pregnancy. Unfortunately, I didn't learn about the existence of the program until my childbirth class instructor mentioned it, and I was already too far along to participate. I'm going to keep it in mind for any future babies though!

    In my opinion, organ and cord blood donations should be on an opt-out, not an opt-in basis. I think the public good of having more donations available for those who need treatment should outweigh the squeamishness some of us have when thinking about such things. For those who are adamantly opposed to donating their organs or their baby's umbilical cord after birth, it should be no problem to fill out a form saying so.