Archives for posts with tag: shopping lists

Last week’s New York Times Dining Section included an article about dinner kits, one of the latest trend in convenience foods (“Everything but the Cook”).  It’s an interesting idea:  After browsing menus on a website, the customer orders dishes online.   The next day, a box containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients—pre-measured and individually packaged—is delivered to the door.  All of the prep work has been done but the customer does the cooking.  The concept falls somewhere between the traditional approach (plan, shop, prep and cook) and ordering in (choose, telephone and wait).  Services like FreshDirect and Peapod fall to both sides, providing either the ingredients (in normal supermarket quantities) or prepared foods (just like take-out).

Dinner kits have some definite advantages.  For people who feel they are too busy to cook, they can raise the quality of the food in a higher proportion than the additional time required to prepare them.  Less food is wasted because only what is needed for the recipe is included in the kits.  And the expansive selections and detailed instructions can help broaden a cook’s repertoire and increase cooking skills.  A dinner kit is also a relatively low-risk way to explore a new cuisine or ingredient.

Of course, one cook’s asset is another’s liability.  The cost of dinner kits is higher than cooking from the larder (no economy of scale) and is more comparable to eating in a restaurant.  The use of pre-packaged ingredients greatly increases the amount of packaging, much of which is not recyclable (I suspect that a lot of polystyrene is involved).  Pre-measuring makes the recipes less flexible—if the cook decides a dish needs more smoked paprika, he or she is out of luck—and means that the food is handled by more people, increasing the risk of contamination.  Further, depending on the cook’s baseline skill set, nothing may be learned from cooking this way.

More significantly, though, the dinner kit concept opens up a debate about what constitutes home cooking.  Few would argue that ordering delivery from a restaurant is any different from eating it out, even if the dishes arrive unheated.  But if they arrive unassembled as well, do they cross the line into the realm of the homemade?  Or is something lost from the home-cooked experience when half of the work has been done by others?

I think it is less a question of what is done and more about how it is done.  For example, a multi-course meal prepared from scratch might not qualify as home cooking if it is performed perfunctorily or without any thought for or involvement of the diners.  Similarly, a dinner out can have significance to and emotional resonance for the guests if the host puts some conscious thought into the choice of restaurant, makes an effort to add to its warm, convivial atmosphere and takes whatever other steps are necessary to insure a positive experience.

The key ingredient, of course, is love.  The more of it that is thrown into the pot, the less the other ingredients matter.  It helps to start the process with attention and thoughtfulness, in the same way that sautéing a mirepoix forms a flavorful basis for soup.  And adding playfulness, adventurousness, or even nostalgia can spice things up, whether it takes place in the home kitchen or at a restaurant.

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On our drive over to the Home Depot this afternoon, we noticed a change in the quality of the sunlight:  it is brighter, more direct, and feels much warmer when it falls on our faces and shines in our eyes.  The sun has worked its way, slowly but steadily, higher into the late-winter sky.  We have turned the corner on winter and spring is coming.

Another way to tell that spring is imminent is to visit a garden center (and if it is open, that is the first good omen).  At the Home Depot, seeds have been on display near the main entrance for a few weeks but now they are expanding their selection and moving them into the garden department.  Workers are clearing away the remnants of winter merchandise (snow blowers, ice-melting salt and the like; good luck to anyone who still needs a snow shovel) and making room for seed trays, potting soil and amendments, planters, seedlings and other garden paraphernalia.  The outdoor showroom, stocked only with snow during the winter months, is starting to fill up.

We are here on a quest to acquire the components of our seed starting apparatus (see February 10, 2013).  The first item on our shopping list is the heavy-duty, 4-shelf plastic storage unit that will provide the supporting structure, and it is proving to be elusive.  We started at the Home Depot branch nearest our home but although both the website and in-store computer showed one remaining in their inventory, they could not find it (it was probably a display model).

The Home Depot website indicated that nine shelving units were in stock at the next store up the road.  But they couldn’t find them either.  It turns out that this shelf is not in their usual inventory but had been carried only for a winter storage promotion (not a bad post-Christmas concept).  Coincidentally—or call it bad luck—the promotion ended last week and just this morning, the staff had removed the display from the floor.  The customer service representative assisting us was not sure whether the nine shelving units existed in reality or were only figments of the computer’s imagination.

Either way, we had to make an adjustment to our design.  Back in the storage department, we looked at every other shelving unit that the Home Depot had to offer.  There was very little in the middle ground—most were too flimsy or too fancy—but the choice was obvious:  a five-shelf unit of the same make and design as the four-shelf unit we originally wanted.  My only objection was price (almost twice as expensive for that one extra shelf!).  After considering it further, however, we decided that it is actually an improvement.  We will use the upper shelves for starting seeds—with less bending over—and use the lower one for storage.

We moved next to the lighting department and found the fixtures we wanted with much less difficultly (although for future visits, I will note SKU numbers rather than manufacturers’ model numbers which are harder to find).  Before leaving this section, we remembered to get a 10-pack of bulbs (which are not included with the fixtures).

We had planned to start the seeds in simple trays but could not find them anywhere (once again the online inventory did not seem to match the store’s).  What we did find were a variety of compartmentalized trays, with and without planting medium.  Those that included soil employed pellets or disks of compressed soil which expand upon moistening.  We had to make another change.

After probably too much consideration (okay, we looked at absolutely every product), we chose trays with 72 small cells, each with a drainage hole.  The trays come with separate pans to collect water and clear covers to retain moisture and heat.  We had planned to put the trays in clear plastic bags and had not even thought about how we would deal with drainage, so this is a definite improvement over our initial design.

The trays did not come with planting medium so we purchased it separately.  I had calculated we would need 2 cu. ft. of soil for the simple trays but with the compartments we can probably get by with half of that.  One cubic foot is about 8 gallons or 32 quarts.  The soil is packaged in 10 quart bags so we bought three (close enough).  We also picked up a package of row markers (these will be very important once we sow the seeds) and a spray bottle.

The last item on the list (my mental one; I never wrote it down) was a package of small S-hooks.  We will need these to hang the light fixtures from the shelves.  This led us to one of my favorite places in the world:  the hardware aisle.  The walls are covered with hundreds of tiny plastic packages of fasteners of every sort and I usually find myself happily distracted by the variety.  I could probably spend hours here and indeed it took a while to find the hooks we were looking for.  Finally, Rachel spotted them and we headed to the check-out.

As we loaded everything into the car, we both felt intense excitement for the upcoming growing season.

Okay, so we’ve decided to start seeds indoors.  It’s time to design a place to grow them.

We could buy a fancy, specially-designed rack with built-in lighting and heat but that can be very expensive.  Also, a pre-fabricated unit might not fit our needs exactly and would probably not be easy to modify.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t fit in with our do-it-yourself mindset regarding the garden and its appurtenances.  Instead, we’ll put one together from items we can buy at the Home Depot.

Most of the rigs we’ve seen in catalogs are based on free-standing shelf units so that’s where we started.  Because we do not have a lot of room in our basement, the unit will have to be of modest size and more vertical than horizontal.  Also, because there will be water (probably everywhere), the shelves should not be metal (which could rust) or wood (which might rot or get moldy); plastic would be the ideal material.  Browsing the Home Depot website, I found an 18” x 36”, 4-shelf unit for less than $20.  It is made of plastic and is listed as heavy-duty which sounds ideal.

The next component of the seed growing apparatus is the lighting.  My first impulse was to do a search for “grow lights” to see what came up.  What I found was a bit shocking, pricewise.  At the low end there were fluorescent fixtures starting at $25 dollars for a single two-foot bulb and at the other end were LED grow lights starting at almost $200, again for a single bulb.  I need three 4-foot-long fixtures with at least two bulbs each making these alternatives much too expensive.

And from what I’ve read, ordinary fluorescent fixtures are just fine for bathing seeds and seedlings in cool, white light.Also, the fixtures do not need to be beautiful (even if they needn’t be ugly, either) so ornamental or otherwise decorative models are out.  Basic, utilitarian shop fixtures seem like a good choice and, sure enough, I was able to find a 4-foot, two-bulb unit for around $20.  This fixture is supported from two chains—spaced, fortuitously, at about three feet apart—which will allow us to adjust its height above the seedlings as they grow.  We’ll get three and at least six 32-watt T8 cool white bulbs (like batteries, they are seldom included).

We next turned our attention to the trays in which we will plant the seeds.  Again, there are a lot of designs available, many of them customized for the purpose.  For instance, some of the trays are compartmentalized to make transplanting easier.  The compartments come in different sizes as well with the smaller ones being better for sowing seeds.  The larger cells may be needed for potting up those seedlings that are not ready to go into the ground.

The compartmentalized trays seem like a good idea but I think they might be harder to fill with soil.  Instead, we will plan on simple, non-compartmentalized trays.  My search came up with a lightweight plastic model that is 11 inches by 22 inches in area and 2.5 inches in depth.  We can fit two per shelf and even though they will extend beyond the ends of the shelves, they will still be completely covered by the light fixtures.  We will need six trays.  If we need to pot up, we will look at possible alternatives at that time.

At least two companies sell trays with each compartment filled with a pellet of compressed seed starting mix; when moistened, the pellet expands to fill the compartment.  This is another good idea but it is much more expensive.  And eventually, we will need loose soil (for potting up) so why not start with it?  Our gardening books tell us that all we need is a balanced mixture of milled peat moss and fine vermiculite so we will buy some of each and mix it ourselves.  Or perhaps we’ll get lazy and buy something pre-mixed.

Some seed starting rigs include heating pads to keep the soil and seeds at the optimum temperature.  We could get one sized to fit our trays (8.5 inches by 20.5 inches); however, at $20 each, the cost for six ($120) would exceed the total cost of all of the other items combined.  To avoid this, we’ll locate the seedling rack in the warmest part of the basement, near the oil burner.  The thermostat is usually set at 55 degrees down there but adjacent to the furnace, it is easily 10 degrees warmer.

To help the soil retain its heat, we will get clear plastic bags in which to ensconce the trays.  The plastic will allow the light (and its warming radiation) to reach the soil surface while keeping in the heat (and moisture, for that matter).  To ensure that we are maintaining an appropriate temperature, we will also get a simple soil thermometer.  Speaking of moisture, we will get a spray bottle to gently water the soil and the seedlings when they emerge.

With potentially hundreds of seedlings—most of which will look nearly identical to each other—we will need to identify what we planted and where.  As a final component of our seed starting apparatus, we will buy row markers to keep everything straight.  Ideally, these will be something simple and cheap (e.g., popsicle sticks) and, preferably, re-useable (therefore, probably made of plastic).

We now have our shopping list.  Onwards to the Home Depot!  (Our local garden center does not open until March.)