How to Be Prepared Without Being a Crazy Prepper

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I recently watched the show American Blackout, and I thought it did a decent job of showing how people in different situations might survive -- or not survive -- a short-term disaster in America.  (Ebola outbreak, perhaps?)  But while it’s currently profitable for the media to showcase the craziest people in the prepper movement, what’s lost in the hype is the fact that it is, in fact, smart to be prepared for disaster, at least to some extent.  Some people go overboard with it, but it’s equally foolish to be so reliant on the supermarket and the grid and the government that you couldn’t survive a few weeks cut off from those kinds of external systems.

Fortunately, such short-term survival is pretty easy to prepare for.  In fact the best way to prepare is to make it part of your regular routine, so that it takes no extra effort when disaster strikes.

Consider water.  Bottled water is the best bet, since in a power outage, your tap water might not be clean or might not run at all.  The easiest approach is to buy cases of half-liter bottles, and always keep a months’ worth on hand.  So if you typically consume 3 cases per month, then buy 6 cases to start, and never let your stock get below 3 cases.  You can even have cases delivered to your house monthly to make it super easy.  Or if you prefer tap water, then just use gallon-sized plastic jugs instead, and refill them.  Either way, the key is to use and rotate the water supply as part of your normal routine, so it’s always stocked and always fresh.  Keep some in your fridge for normal use, so you’re not losing any convenience (i.e. cold drinks) during normal times, yet you’re still prepared for an emergency.

Water is also necessary for flushing the toilet, so keep a few extra gallons -- or a few tens of gallons -- on hand for that.

Next up is food.  For short-term emergencies lasting a week or less, which is the vast majority of them, food is actually not that important.  The average non-overweight person has enough body fat to survive a couple weeks without food, as long as water is available.  And the average American actually is overweight, so has even more body fat and could survive even longer.  A week or two without food wouldn’t be enjoyable, but it wouldn’t kill you either.  That said, the average American house contains at least several days’ worth of non-refrigerated packaged food anyway, so again, for short-term survival this is a non-issue.

To do survival food right, though, especially for longer-term survival, it does take a small amount of planning, namely: finding high-quality food with a long shelf life that you enjoy eating.  There’s plenty of processed junk food that lasts forever, but there’s actually a lot of good stuff, too: oysters, beef jerky, nut mixes, herring, sardines, fruit and seed mixes, salmon... It’s important to get high-quality food because, as with the water, you’ll be eating these things regularly -- say once or twice a week -- during non-emergencies, in order to move through your stock and keep it all fresh.  That’s less important for the meats, because all those items I just linked to will last a year or more, but the fruit and nuts are typically good for a couple months.

There are many other aspects to disaster prep: protection/self-defense; knowing your neighbors, since you’ll rely on each other more when cut off from the nanny state; growing your own food as much as possible, or at least, knowing your local farmer; having an off-grid and renewable way to heat your house, such as a wood stove.  Always keep a little cash in your wallet, even though you may not use cash very often in normal circumstances.  Keep your car’s gas tank at least half full.  Keep a bug-out bag ready, which is easy if you go for hikes regularly: just make it your hiking bag, which already has a flashlight, multitool, and first-aid kit, so just add a couple bottles of water and a few food items.

Most of these recommendations are simple and cheap; it’s more Boy Scouts ("Be Prepared") than "Doomsday Preppers".  The extreme conveniences of modern life have lulled us into a state of complacency, where we rarely need to plan or prepare at all, since anything we might need is always just a short drive to the nearest Wal-Mart, at any time of day or night.  Smart emergency preparedness is about working towards regaining some of the self-sufficiency that used to be commonplace and a point of pride in America.  You don’t need a bunker stocked with k-rations; but when you stop taking for granted all those modern conveniences, you realize that a bit of planning and preparing just makes sense.

So, how many days could you survive cut off from the outside world?

Posted by Anthony on at 01:21am

The Perfect Egg Flipper: Lodge 8-Inch Cast-Iron Pan

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I’ve been trying to switch from Teflon pans to cast-iron pans, partly due to the questionable health and safety status of Teflon, but also because I’m sick of having to buy new Teflon pans every 6-12 months when their non-stick coating starts to fail.

This transition has been pretty easy, and cast-iron pans are dirt cheap.  But the one thing I worried about was eggs: would I be able to fry two eggs in a cast-iron pan and flip them properly?  Of course properly means flipping them in the air, without a spatula.  That’s how I’ve cooked eggs my entire life, and having to use a spatula instead would be a sad combination of absurd and depressing.

Flipping eggs in the air is trivial in a (new) Teflon pan, but what about cast-iron?  I did a web search and found plenty of people saying that cast-iron is every bit as non-stick -- if not moreso -- as Teflon, once it’s properly seasoned.  I was encouraged, but skeptical.

I bought the 8-Inch Lodge L5SK3 Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Skillet.  The Lodge logo is a pan with an egg in it, so it must work, right?  But the instructions clearly state that the pan’s pre-seasoned coating is not perfectly non-stick, but will get better with time.  I was anxious to try it anyway, so I fried up some eggs, and they stuck.  Severely.

I then spent three months using the pan for things other than eggs: mainly fried vegetables and ham.  The key is to just rinse the pan with hot water to clean it; never use soap, and if it needs scrubbing, just use a stiff-bristled brush.  Then, don’t towel-dry it; just put it on the stove briefly until all the water evaporates.  At that point, if the cooking surface looks shiny, you’re done: just put the pan away.  But if it looks dull and dry, which it did the first few times, then put in a tiny bit of coconut oil and spread it around, coating the entire cooking surface.  Turn it over to drip out any excess, then put the pan away until next time.

Using that cleaning method, and cooking with the pan only about 4 times per week, it gained a really nice non-stick surface in about three months.  And that included a couple of rookie mistakes where I used the cast-iron pan to cook acidic sauces (marinara once, and BBQ another time) -- those eat away the non-stick surface pretty badly, and your food tastes like iron.  But fortunately, it only takes one or two proper uses to fix the surface after that.

Last week I decided to give eggs another try, and lo!  They cooked beautifully.  They did stick just a little bit at first, but I was able to break them free just by shaking the pan.  Then with a flick of the wrist, they flipped over easily.

So here’s my perfect fried eggs recipe in a non-stick cast-iron pan:

1. Set stove to medium and pre-heat pan for 7 minutes.  (That’s an electric stove; I’d guess gas needs less time and/or lower heat.)

2. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and let it cook for 1 minute.

3. Add two eggs.  They should sizzle pretty good immediately.  Salt and pepper.

4. Don’t touch the pan for 2 minutes.  At 2 minutes, gently shake the pan until the eggs slide around freely, then flip them (in the air, not with a spatula, you sissy!).

5. Turn off the heat and let the eggs cook for 1 more minute (3 minutes total).  Add more salt and pepper to this side, plus some shredded cheddar cheese.

6. Slide the perfect eggs right onto your plate.  The whites should be slightly browned and the yolks warm but runny.

Posted by Anthony on at 12:02am

Nuts of Deception: Planters Mixed Nuts

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I love Planters.  From Honey Roasted Peanuts to Dry Roasted Sunflower Kernels to Mixed Nuts, they make some tasty snacks.

But a man can only turn a blind eye to injustice for so long.  Shown below are the entire contents of a 248g pack of Planters Deluxe Mixed Nuts: Cashews, Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Pecans, and Pistachios:

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What’s wrong with this picture?

This is not an anomaly.  I eat these regularly and it’s always the same.  This time I decided to separate the nuts to see if the disparity was really as bad as it seemed to be.  The results:

Cashews: 113g
Almonds: 113g
Brazil nuts: 8g (2 nuts)
Pecans: 8g (~6 nuts)
Pistachios: 8g (~16 nuts)

I know some nuts are more expensive than others so I don’t expect the ratios to be exactly one to one... but TEN to one?  That’s just pathetic.  Planters, you oughta be ashamed of yourselves.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:37am

Restaurant Review: Na'Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse

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At $43 per person (excluding drinks and desserts), Na’Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse is not the kind of restaurant we can afford to go to very often.  But after going there for the first time this weekend for a special occasion, I can say it’s easily one of my all-time favorite restaurants.  If you like meat, then you need to get yourself to Na’Brasa as soon as possible.  If you don’t like meat, what’s wrong with you?

There are two courses in a Na’Brasa meal.  The first course is the salad bar, which has a huge variety of foods, which are mostly not meat, at least not primarily.  But the real action is in the second course.  At your table, you have a small laminated card with a brown side and a yellow side.  When you’re ready for meat, you flip it over so the yellow side is facing up, which signals the waiters to come to your table.

But these aren’t just any waiters.  It’s a team of about 10 waiters, each carrying a giant skewer and a carving knife.  On each skewer is one particular kind of meat: filet mignon, picanha, pork ribs, beef short ribs, sausage, bacon-wrapped chicken, lamb chops, and many other varieties.  The waiters are constantly swarming the room, going from the kitchen past each table, looking for yellow cards.  When a waiter sees your yellow card, he stops and asks if you want the particular kind of meat that he’s carrying.  If so, he carves off a slice for you on the spot.  And each skewer typically has three or four different pieces of the same cut, so you can choose the level of doneness for your slice.

As long as you’ve got your yellow card showing, waiters will continually come by and give you more meat.  When you need a break, you flip your card over to the brown side.  Then flip back to yellow when you’re ready to feast again.

This is pretty much the greatest idea in the history of restaurants.

The meat was delicious.  The picanha, sausage, and beef short ribs in particular were simply amazing.  The picanha had a nice fat cap that was perfectly crisped.  The sausage and short ribs were ridiculously tender and richly flavored.  There was also salmon (technically part of the salad course, but it’s carried around the room and brought to your table like the rodízio meats) that was quite good.

And then there’s the desserts: you’re so stuffed that you can barely even think about them, but you made the mistake of checking them out online beforehand, so you have to get one.  I got the Peanut Butter Bomb and loved it.  I also had a bit of Travis’ Cheesecake Xango which was wonderful.

In addition to the food being excellent, these were some of the best waiters I’ve ever seen.  This guy was especially good:

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He’s picanha guy, and he spent a lot of time at our table.  I wish I would have taken some photos of the meat slices before devouring them, but in that photo, you can at least see the picanha on the skewer.

Na’Brasa also helpfully labels everything on their salad bar to indicate which items are gluten-free, and 14 of the 17 meats are also gluten-free.  It’s nice to see a restaurant catering to this common food sensitivity, rather than worrying about silly fads like the low-fat diet.

Posted by Anthony on at 11:45pm

Why Your Doctor Is Clueless About Diet

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Because, despite decades of government recommendations telling us what kind of diet we should eat (a low-fat, high-carb, grain-heavy one), there is actually very little science to support such claims:

Quoting The New York Times:

“We don’t know what the best diet is,” said Dr. Michael Lauer... When it comes to diet and heart disease, doctors -- and patients -- have been going on hunches. [...]

“Diets are an extreme case of accepting evidence we want to believe,” said Dr. J. Sanford Schwartz, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

That includes doctors, he added, who overlook that the evidence for the low-fat diets they often recommend is the sort “we would never accept in the practice of medicine.”

Those low-fat diets sound sensible -- eat fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meats.  Cut back on salt- and sugar-laden sodas and potato chips.  Cut or sharply limit most fats, including olive oil and nuts.  But such diets have not been tested in the way the Mediterranean diet was tested.

Doctors are in a bind, said Dr. Daniel J. Rader, a heart disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania.  When patients ask what to eat, he said, “you have to give them something.”

“Given the importance of diets and given the decades of dietary recommendations we have given to people, you would think we would have had more dietary studies with hard endpoints to get at these questions,” Dr. Rader said.  But the best they have are studies that look at intermediate markers of risk, like cholesterol levels.  In the end, he said, “most doctors just give dietary platitudes.”

Actually, it’s worse than that: because the government decided to start giving out dietary advice before there was solid scientific evidence to support that advice, they now have a vested interest in keeping that narrative going even in the face of evidence against it, since the government can’t admit when it has made a mistake.

Posted by Anthony on at 02:31am

The Real Cause of Our Health Care Problems (Or: How Bureaucrats Destroy Industries)

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Steven Brill just published a long article called Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.  It’s a good article and worth reading, despite being far too long at 11 pages.  There’s so much repetition that it probably could have been 5 pages instead, and it’d be a better piece for it.

It’s surprising to me, though, that the author fails to identify (or at least, fails to state) what is the clear cause of the outrageously expensive medical bills that he details in the article’s several anecdotes.

He spends a lot of time pointing out exactly how much profit is being accumulated by many "non-profit" hospitals, and how much they are paying to their executives and administrators.  It’s the same as the situation with "non-profit" colleges and universities: the term non-profit is purely a marketing term, and a deceptive one at that, since hospitals, colleges, and universities are among the richest organizations in the country.  They are making tons of profit -- tens of millions of dollars per year in many cases -- they just aren’t structured in a way that it gets distributed to shareholders.

The problem is that medical bills are insanely inflated, and the implication seems to be that the cause is these rich fatcats running the hospitals -- or at the very least, those rich fatcats are evil even if they aren’t actually the cause.

The author correctly identifies chargemaster prices as part of the problem.  He gives many examples of chargemaster highway robbery, such as pills or alcohol wipes that cost several dollars each in the hospital even though their actual price in the free market is pennies each.  And he recounts how administrator after administrator was unable to explain to him exactly where the chargemaster prices come from or why they’re so high.

He also goes into detail about Medicare and private insurance and their strengths and weaknesses, including how a lot of insurance is limited to a few thousand dollars of coverage while medical bills routinely reach tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands.

Despite all the good reporting and detail provided on these many aspects of our health care system, nowhere does the author state the simple economic fact that is at the root of the problem: the decoupling of the customer from the payment.  In other words, the person receiving the service is not the person who pays the bill.

Whenever you insert a third party between a buyer and a seller, whether that third party is an insurer or the government, the result is an interruption of the price signal and a distortion of the market.  In many cases this leads to a bubble, as we’ve seen in housing and higher education.  When "someone else" is paying the bill, the buyer has no incentive to care about the price, which means that the seller -- whose goal is profit, after all -- will raise prices.

So when the government pumps billions of dollars into the housing market to "make housing affordable", the actual result is that prices skyrocket until the market is destroyed.  When the government pumps billions of dollars into higher ed to "make college affordable", the actual result is, again, skyrocketing prices as the bubble inflates.  And "making health care affordable", as Obamacare purports to do, by making it "free" for many people, outlawing copays, etc, will again in fact cause the opposite to occur: it will get more expensive.

There are many problems in the U.S. health care system, but none are more important or more fundamental than this one.  Hospitals, drug companies, and medical device makers can only charge outrageous prices because patients don’t pay them directly.  Further decoupling the patients from the prices will exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

The failure of politicians to understand this most basic economic principle has led to massive damage and suffering in our health care, housing, and education markets.

Posted by Anthony on at 01:46am

Restaurant Review: A Ca Mia Italian Restaurant in Walnutport, PA

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A new restaurant called A Ca Mia just opened in Walnutport, owned by a well-regarded chef with decades of experience.  Between that and the fact that the only other restaurants in the area are fast food, we were anxious to check it out.

The Food

I was very happy with my meal.  There was the traditional bread with dipping oil, then a salad with vidalia onion dressing, and Meat Sauce Bolognese for my entree: "Our traditional combination of veal, beef and pork meat slowly braised and cooked in a red wine tomato sauce."  For dessert I had the cannoli, which used puff pastry instead of the usual thin shell, and it was delicious.

You choose whichever kind of pasta you’d like in the Bolognese, and I chose penne.  The portion size was gigantic: I ate about a third of it, and took the rest home, where I weighed it to find it was nearly two pounds left over.

My only complaints are minor: the salad was served in a bowl that was just barely big enough to hold it, which means that it’s virtually impossible to mix after pouring on the dressing (which they serve on the side); the "dipping oil" for the bread was actually a mountain of minced garlic covered in a small amount of oil, which was so spicy from all the garlic that it was slightly painful to eat; and they don’t offer sweet iced tea, nor raspberry iced tea, to drink -- just soda and unsweetened tea (and of course water, milk, and hot drinks).

Kim’s meal, however, was disappointing.  She called ahead to ask whether they have any gluten-free meals, and they said yes.  But when we got there, our waitress told us that they could make pretty much any regular meal gluten-free upon request.  That might sound good at first, but in reality what it means is they haven’t actually put any time or effort into making good gluten-free meals.  Technically it’s true that they can make most of their meals gluten-free by serving them without the pasta, but that doesn’t mean the resulting meals are going to be any good (e.g. lasagna without noodles would be pretty pathetic, and not at all the same as lasagna with gluten-free noodles).

The chicken and broccoli that Kim got is a prime example of this.  I’m not sure exactly what it would have looked like in the regular version, but the gluten-free version was 3 large chicken breasts surrounded by some broccoli on a plate with a very watery white sauce.  The chicken did not seem to be seasoned nor seared at all, and the sauce was not creamy, not cheesy, just watery.

The Atmosphere

A Ca Mia probably didn’t have many good options for where to site the restaurant in the Walnutport area, through no fault of its own, of course.  But the location is quite small, and the tables are packed into it pretty tightly.  It’s a single room, and I believe it’s all tables, with no booths.  It feels crowded.  There was a waitress or busboy hustling past us pretty much the whole time.

The restaurant is also noisy.  Partly this was because of a large, rowdy group seated near our table, and partly it’s because it was a Saturday night (though it was 9:30 PM, nearly closing time) -- but it’s also partly because of the single-room layout and the lack of sound-dampening design features (particularly carpet) in the space.  It feels more like a cafeteria than a restaurant.

The Verdict

I would gladly eat at A Ca Mia again, despite its flaws.  The menu is expansive, with about 60 entrees (including a large seafood section) and over a dozen appetizers.  And as I mentioned, there are few if any other decent restaurants in the area, so it’s almost the only game in town.  They had a 45-60 minute wait around 6:30 PM so they seem to be doing well.

On the other hand, Bravo is only 20 minutes down the road.  And as much as I did like the food at A Ca Mia, it is just not in the same league as Bravo.  If it were considerably cheaper, that’d be one thing, but our meal (two entrees, two sodas, and two desserts -- no appetizers and no alcohol) was $50 before tip, which is the same price or more expensive than a meal at Bravo, or Outback Steakhouse, or P.F. Chang’s, etc.

And A Ca Mia just doesn’t have much to offer people with a gluten intolerance, which is a significant portion of the population, even if many of them haven’t discovered it yet.  The restaurant could certainly stand to take 5 of those 60 entrees and replace them with a few well-designed dishes that are truly gluten-free.

Posted by Anthony on at 09:34pm

Delicious and Simple Home-Made Pizza Recipe (and It's Gluten-Free To Boot)

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I am apparently a pizza snob.  I’d say at least 75% of the pizza I’ve had in my life has been utter crap.  So I’m really glad to have pizza that I can make at home, that’s not only delicious, but super easy, and gluten-free too.  There are only five ingredients:

Crust: "Three Cheese Pizza Shell" from Against The Grain Gourmet, in the freezer section at the grocery store; Wegmans has it.

Sauce: Rao’s "Dinner To Go" Italian Sausage & Mushroom Sauce.  Of course you can use pretty much any sauce you want, but this Rao’s sauce is amazing, it’s not all loaded up with sugar like so many sauces, and it’s got big chunks of sausage and mushroom, so if you like those, it’s a bonus three ingredients in one.

Cheese: Sargento Artisan Blends Whole Milk Mozzarella, pre-shredded in an 8oz bag, which is just the right size.  Probably any shredded mozzarella would do, just don’t get any low-fat garbage.

Spices: just garlic salt and oregano.

The recipe:

1. Pre-heat the oven to 400F.
2. Put the frozen crust directly on the oven rack and cook for ~10 minutes.
3. Take out the crust, top it with ~340g of sauce (which is half the bottle).
4. Sprinkle with garlic salt and oregano.
5. Cover with 8oz of shredded mozzarella.
6. Sprinkle with even more garlic salt and oregano.
7. Cook at 400F for ~13 minutes.

The crust will be crispy/crunchy and amazing, but if you prefer your crust soft, then a) what’s wrong with you, and b) just skip the step where you cook the crust by itself first, or shorten it to just a couple of minutes.

The Against The Grain crust (or "shell") is the key here.  Mozzarella is pretty much always amazing, and the sauce can be whatever kind of sauce you love, so you just need a good crust, and these guys have nailed it.

Some photos of the ingredients and the finished product:

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Posted by Anthony on at 06:54pm

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