Classic French Ratatouille

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Classic French recipes such as this ratatouille seem intimidating because they require specific techniques, but that’s what makes a good cook. Perhaps you don’t try this mid-week because it requires a whole lot of chopping, but ratatouille is a great Sunday afternoon recipe listening to great music and maybe even having a glass of wine…or two.

While it’s considered a summer dish found throughout the Mediterranean coast, it’s also great in colder weather because it’s warm and comforting without the heaviness of braised meats or stews.

Plus it’s a one-pot recipe, so if you’re a lazy dishwasher like I am, it makes Sunday evenings so much better!

You can eat ratatouille on its own as a side dish, but it’s so versatile in other dishes. You can add it to pasta, or top it with an egg. It’s also amazing on great French bread. Pair it with a glass of your favorite red wine.

classic ratatouilleINGREDIENTTS

  • 34 oz fresh tomato sauce
  • 20 basil leaves
  • 1 large red pepper, sliced in rings
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced in rings
  • 1 yellow zucchini, sliced in rings
  • 1 green zucchini, sliced in rings
  • 1 eggplant, sliced in rings
  • 1 tomato, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1.5 tablespoons dry oregano
  • salt and pepper

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 °F
  2. Spread ¾ of tomato sauce into a pan that will fit all of your vegetables.
  3. Begin to layer vegetables (i.e. tomato, then zucchini, then pepper) in a clockwise rotation beginning in the center and moving outward. Don’t worry about the order of the vegetables as you’ll have more slices of some things than others.
  4. Fill in any gaps between the vegetables with remaining tomato sauce. Season with salt, pepper, and dry oregano. Drizzle with olive oil.
  5. Bake uncovered for one hour.

The Obstacle in Our Path

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In ancient times, a King had a boulder placed on a roadway. He then hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king’s wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the King for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the stone out of the way.

Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. Upon approaching the boulder, the he laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded.

obstacle in path

After the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the King indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway.

The peasant learned what many of us never understand: Every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve!

The Best Mulch Types

Why Mulch?

Spreading mulch over your garden soil is the best way to save time and energy in your yard. Mulch helps the soil hold moisture so you don’t have to water as often. It also suppresses weeds. And over time, mulches made from organic materials break down and increase your soil’s structure and fertility.

shredded barkShredded Bark

Shredded bark is one of the most common and least expensive types of mulch. It comes from a variety of sources, including cedar trees. Shredded bark is one of the best mulch types to use on slopes and it breaks down relatively slowly. Some shredded-bark products are byproducts from other industries; they’re considered environmentally friendly. Check the mulch packaging for more information.

Mulch tip: Shredded bark can take up some nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes. If you have poor soil, adding some organic fertilizer to the soil can help keep your plants healthy.

leavesLeaves

Save money by shredding fallen leaves in your yard and using them to as mulch to cover the soil. Fallen leaves break down quickly (often in less than a year), but should be shredded before use to prevent them from matting down. Fallen leaves are commonly used as mulch in winter.

grass clippingsGrass Clippings

Another type of mulch you can make for free, grass clippings break down fast but add nitrogen to the soil as they do. It’s best to use grass clippings in thin layers or to let the grass dry before spreading it as a mulch — otherwise it starts to stink and rot as it decomposes.

Here’s a hint: Avoid using grass clippings if your lawn is chemically treated, especially if you use it in vegetable gardens. The chemicals may harm your desirable garden plants.

strawStraw

Straw mulch has a beautiful golden color that looks great in the garden. It’s also a bit slower to break down than leaves or grass clippings.

Mulch tip: Make sure the straw is free of weed seeds, otherwise it can cause more weeds than it prevents. (Oat straw is often particularly weedy.)

compostCompost

Compost looks like soil, except it’s darker, so it really sets off plants well. This mulch material breaks down quickly but adds to your soil structure the fastest. Plus, it’s inexpensive; you can create your own rich compost for free. Many municipalities give away compost, as well.

pine needle mulchPine Needle Mulch

Pine needles add a delicate, fine texture to plantings. They hold in place well, making them useful on slopes, and they’re relatively slow to break down. If you continuously use pine needles as mulch, they may increase the acidity of your soil. This makes them ideal for use with acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries, and some types of conifers.

pine bark nuggetsPine Bark Nuggets

Pine bark nuggets are slower to break down than shredded bark, but they don’t stay in place as well. They’re not a good mulch choice for slopes or other areas where they may be washed away by heavy rain. Pine bark nuggets are available in a variety of sizes; the bigger the nugget, the longer it lasts.

wood chipsWood Chips

 You can often get wood chips for free from local tree trimmers, though the trimmers will usually ask you to haul the chips yourself. Wood chips, especially when they’re freshly made, can take up a fair amount of nitrogen from the soil. They can be acidic and lower your soil’s pH, as well.

Mulch tip: If you get wood chips from a local source, check if the tree had poison ivy on it. Working with wood chips that contain poison ivy can cause skin irritation. Also: Wood chips from walnut trees may contain natural chemicals that inhibit the growth of many garden plants.

cocoa hull mulchCocoa Hull Mulch

Cocoa hull mulch is one of the most beautiful types of mulch, thanks to its fine texture and rich color. And many gardeners appreciate its delightful chocolate fragrance. Cocoa hull mulch is one of the most expensive mulch types, though. It decomposes slowly, and unlike most mulch types, it doesn’t fade with time. It’s a great mulch for small-leafed plants such as herbs where the shells are easy to work around. In areas with hot, humid weather, mold may grow on its surface. Cocoa hull mulch is poisonous to dogs and cats if they eat it.

Here’s a hint: Because cocoa hulls are light, they can blow away unless you spray them down well with water after you first spread them.

gravel or river rockGravel or River Rock

Because they’re inorganic materials, gravel and river rock don’t break down in the landscape, so they don’t need to be reapplied every year. However, it also means they don’t improve your soil over time.

Here’s a hint: It can be very difficult to remove gravel or river rock mulch if you ever change your mind. They can make it more difficult to plant in or divide perennials.

Can You Really Afford to Buy a House?

The scenario: Your landlord keeps hiking up your rent, and you’re tired of reworking your budget to accommodate the other areas of your life — or worse, searching for a new rental. You want to invest in a home for sale, but you’re not sure if now is the right time.

buying a house

There are two likely reasons for your hesitation: time and money. Deciding if you should rent or buy can be determined in part by your commitment to an area — you could have legitimate concerns about job relocation or you may wonder if the space you can afford now will be flexible enough that you won’t grow out of it just a few years down the road. And on an economic level, perhaps you’re not sure you can afford all the costs that a down payment, mortgage, and home maintenance entail.

The first step? Do some homework. Consider these questions to help you decide if the answer to “Can I afford a house?” is yes.

Should you buy before home prices climb higher?

In most parts of the U.S., home prices have been climbing steadily for the past few years. Does this mean you should rush to lock in the current prices before they rise even higher? The best answer: not necessarily. Do what’s right for you. If you’re planning to stay in one spot for a decade or more, short-term fluctuations in the house’s underlying value shouldn’t make a difference. After all, the primary purpose of a home is to provide a place to live, coupled with an opportunity to grow equity over time. Don’t over-analyze the market when deciding to buy a house. If the time is right for you, there’s no reason to wait.

Do you have a 20% down payment?

One of the major factors in determining if the time is right to buy a house: whether you have the finances to purchase one. Many lenders require a 20% down payment before they’ll grant you a mortgage. If you can’t come up with such a hefty down payment, it’s possible to secure a loan, but you’ll probably have to pay private mortgage insurance, or PMI, to make up the difference.

PMI rates vary from lender to lender but generally cost 0.05% to 1% of the total loan amount. At 0.05%, you’ll pay $41.50 per month for every $100,000 worth of loan that you carry. If you’re holding an FHA-insured loan, you pay two different mortgage insurance premiums. The upfront premium is 1.75% of your loan size, and it will be added to your borrowed amount (thus increasing your monthly costs). You’ll also pay a second premium, which is assessed annually and billed monthly. This second fee, often known as monthly mortgage insurance, will cost 1.3% annually if you carry a 30-year mortgage and put down at least 5%.

The bottom line? Not having a 20% down payment on hand can be a very expensive proposition. If you borrow $200,000, for example, and you’re charged 1% PMI, you’ll hand over $166 per month — not an insignificant sum.

Hands holding a  piggy bank and a house model. Housing industry mortgage plan and residential tax saving strategy

Can you budget for recurring monthly expenses?

Your mortgage payment is the heftiest of all monthly payments. It comprises four items: principal, interest, taxes, and insurance. (Together, these are known as PITI.) If you have a fixed-rate mortgage, your principal and interest will remain a flat monthly fee, regardless of what’s happening in the overall economy. However, your taxes and insurance may change, so even with a fixed-rate mortgage, your payment could fluctuate. Taxes are set by your county government and are based on its assessment of your property, so this expense is subject to increase at any point — either if your county reassesses your home at a higher value or if your local government decides to boost its tax rates.

Ask yourself: Do you have the space in your budget to accommodate that type of tax increase? If your budget is so tight that this will cause you to miss payments, you’re probably not in a strong enough position (right now) to buy a home. Likewise, you might decide to buy a home in a community that’s governed by a homeowners’ association, or HOA. This HOA can assess mandatory “dues” and put a lien on your house if you don’t pay the bill. And the HOA can decide to raise its dues at any point. Do you have enough wiggle room in your budget to accommodate a fee hike?

Do you have savings for maintenance and repairs?

Your mortgage isn’t the only housing expense you’ll need to meet in your budget. When you move from a rental to a home, you have new responsibilities (and the related costs), such as cleaning the gutters, replacing or repairing the roof, fixing and maintaining the HVAC, refinishing the floors, hiring a plumber, installing a new dishwasher, and repairing a broken garbage disposal.

As a very broad rule of thumb, you should budget 1% of the home’s purchase price annually for repairs and maintenance. For example: If your home is worth $300,000, set aside $3,000 per year, or $250 per month. You probably won’t spend this amount each month. Some months, you’ll spend zero. But another month, you may need to replace every window in your home — and could rack up a $7,500 bill.

How long will you stay in your home?

Buying and selling a home incurs thousands in closing costs — including inspections, title insurance, transfer tax, attorney fees, and real estate commissions. If you’re going to hold on to your home for several years, those costs will spread themselves out over time. But if you might be selling your home after two or three years, those costs (in addition to property taxes, homeowners insurance, mortgage interest, and maintenance) might add up to more than what you would have paid in rent.