A few weeks ago I told you that I would be testing and then reviewing the 3.5-Quart Crockpot Casserole Slow Cooker. What’s different about this slow cooker from the typical slow cooker is its shape. The stoneware insert is a 9” x 13” rectangular baking dish that is the perfect size and shape to cook and serve casseroles, lasagnas and other great dishes.

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Crockpot Casserole Slow Cooker

The casserole Crockpot is available in several colors as well as two models: Manual with settings of Low, High and Keep Warm (about $40) and a Programmable version with digital controls that offer cook temps of Low, High and Keep Warm and times ranging from 30 minutes to 20 hours. (About $60). I have the manual version. For my needs and lifestyle it’s perfect. If necessary I can plug it into an ordinary appliance timer to set the end time.

The Crockpot Casserole Slow Cooker has an awesome feature in its secure-fit locking lid. For me, this makes it portable. And serving straight from this slow cooker is more than ideal. It’s charming because the 9” x 13” dish is white and very attractive. I can place the entire appliance on the mea table to keep its contents warm, or simply lift the pan from the slow cooker and place it on the table.

I’ve made dessert, several casseroles and lasagna so far and I could not be happier. While this won’t replace my traditional 7-quart slow cooker, it is going to be a well-used option for recipes that are more casserole-like.  Read more

For years I’ve been telling my readers there are two kinds of debt: safe debt and toxic debt.

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Safe debt is secured debt―it has collateral connected to it. Your home mortgage is a safe debt. You had to qualify for it, so at least one person somewhere looked at your financial situation determined that you can afford it.

If things change and you can’t or you change your mind and want out of the debt, there’s a way out. You can sell the collateral or just hand it over to the lender and call it even. Safe debt gives you a way out. You have the equivalent of a safety net so you don’t ruin your life.

Toxic debt, on the other hand, is stupid debt you get on your signature alone without qualifying, without anyone caring about whether or not you can afford it.

Toxic, poisonous debt comes from allowing credit purchases to revolve on a credit-card account, opting to pay only the minimum monthly payment. It’s the terrible reality of spending sprees and frivolous decisions.
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Surprise! Today, instead of sharing tips you’ve sent to me, I’ve decided to hog the entire column to share some of my own. Several of these are oldies but goodies, while some I have discovered recently. I do love great tips.

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CELLPHONE ALARM VOLUME BOOSTER. If you’re a heavy sleeper and have trouble hearing your mobile phone’s alarm, you can boost the volume by setting it in a glass drinking glass. This works because the sound reverberates and intensifies inside the glass. It may not be the world’s most pleasant amplification technique, but it works great for an alarm. As an added benefit, to turn the alarm off you have to actually pull the phone out of the glass. This makes it a bit more likely that you’ll actually get up and not roll over to fall back asleep.

NEVER LOSE THE REMOTE AGAIN. The reason most of us misplace the remote controls to our TVs and other electronic devices is they don’t have a specific place to go. They might end up on a coffee table, an end table, slide behind the couch or, as I have experienced, right into a trash can to never be seen again. One person whose handiwork I find to be so clever, stuck his remote controls to a coffee table with hook and loop fasteners. Any fabric or craft store sells this stuff by the inch or in packages with the hook and loop fasteners outfitted with self-stick tape. His choice is black sticky-back VELCRO® Brand. He cuts off the amount of product he needs for the task at hand, removes the protective paper covering the sticky sides and affixes one side to the remote and the other to the table. It’s true: When a remote control device has a home, it’s more likely to go there regularly.

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A message in my inbox this week came from Joan who asked, “What is the best way to clean a very grimy painted wood floor?”

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Before I get to an answer for Joan, let’s talk generally about wood floors and the difference between a painted wood floor and a finished wood floor. I would never suggest that anyone treat them as equals when it comes to cleaning. Please, make sure you never use a painted floor cleaning formula on your finished hardwood floor because it will be too harsh and could cause damage.

Paint by definition is different than say a polyurethane finish, typically used on hardwood floors. Paint is tougher, especially latex enamel that has been formulated for wood floors. Although water isn’t recommended for cleaning finished wood floors because it raises the grain, it’s safer for painted floors because the paint prevents the moisture from soaking into the wood. Even so, Joan will want to dry her painted wood floor promptly to prevent the wood from absorbing moisture.

Because Joan used the word “grimy” to describe this painted floor, I’m going to assume this painted floor that has dried on spills and dirt that’s been ground in over a period of time—a worst case scenario. Read more

I suppose that for many readers, the idea of making your own mixes and pantry items from scratch might seem a bit archaic. Why not just buy salad dressings, taco seasonings, baking mixes and little boxes of pudding mix that are available just about anywhere and so convenient? Three reasons: Health, time and money.

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HEALTH: Reading the list of ingredients on the typical convenience packet of seasoning mix or other prepared food product can be confusing if not shocking. Many of these convenience products contain MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, dioxides and any number of un-pronounceable items. When you make it yourself, you know what’s in it.

TIME: Having mixes already made and ready to go, could mean the difference between having time to get dinner on the table or hitting the pricey Drive Thru one more time this week. And you’ll cut out last minute trips to the store because you will have what you need.

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My vacuum-sealer is one of my favorite kitchen appliances. I vacuum seal fresh fruit to extend the useful by at least two weeks, often much longer. I vacuum seal meat before I freeze it to stave off freezer burn, which keeps it perfect for six months to a year. I could go on and on about my FoodSaver saves our food bill, but today I want to tell you all the ways I use the thing that have nothing to do with food!

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But first, two general vacuum-sealing tips:

CONVENIENCE. I’ve learned through trial and error that for my FoodSaver to work at maximum efficiency it has to be handy. It cannot be stuck in a cupboard or on a pantry shelf. If I have to make the smallest effort to get it out and plug it in, I stop using it because I forget, or it’s such a hassle I decided to skip using it “just this one time.” My FoodSaver has to sit on the counter with nothing obstructing it—always plugged in and ready to go. And the bags have to be equally handy. I keep them in the drawer immediately below the counter where FoodSaver resides. Read more

DEAR MARY: I am one of your millions of fans. Your insight, tips, products and recipes are terrific. Thank you for your time and efforts!

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I’m looking for something I can purchase or make myself to put into the dryer to extract dog hairs from fabric. Years ago I purchased a kind of fabric ball, which looked ordinary enough and worked great. Since then I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m desperate! Thanks, Anita

DEAR ANITA: I’m pretty sure you’re taking about a Dryer Maid Ball that removes pet hair in the dryer, while softening clothes and decreasing wrinkles. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not tested this product myself, because I do not have a pet. However, the customer reviews are positive from those who use this product to extract all that pet hair. What I have tested and love are Wool Dryer Balls. These dryer balls soften as well as reduce static without fragrance or chemicals—and I have noticed that they pick up stray hair that finds its way into the dryer. If you give either, or both, a try, be sure give us your review. I’m sure yours is a common problem within our big (and growing!) EC family. Read more

If you’ve ever had the need to prevent children from closing a door and unwittingly closing themselves in a pantry or bathroom, you may know the old hand- towel trick: Throw the towel over the top of the door. That’s it. No matter how hard a child might try to close it, “no can do!” I’ve always loved that handy dandy tip. But I have to admit, I’d never thought about how to use a similar trick to keep a child from opening a door. Well, I hadn’t until I heard from today’s first great reader ….

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CREATE A TIGHT JAM. My 2 year-old grandson opened an outside entry door with a  lever-type handle and went outside while I was in the bathroom! I live in an apartment and am not allowed to install a chain or other hardware on the door. I searched for a portable lock and found several kinds—all about $15 to $25. I finally found a suggestion of closing a folded washcloth in the opening between the door and door jam. That effectively jams the door without harming it. Opening the door requires the strength of an adult to pull the cloth out. I’m so thankful to find this tip because it didn’t cost me a thing and it really works to keep a child from opening a forbidden door. Barbara

USE ‘EM UP TO THE LAST PEEL. Rather than throw out overly ripe vegetables, I simmer them in water to make vegetable stock*. I also keep a bag in my freezer where I add vegetable peelings and other vegetables odds and ends—even potato cooking water—  and potato cooking water until it’s full, then I make the stock. Cate

*Chop scrubbed vegetables into 1-inch chunks. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in a soup pot.  Add vegetables scraps and pieces (onion, celery, carrots, scallions, garlic and herbs and so forth). Cook over high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add salt and water (more or less depending on volume of vegetables) and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain. Discard vegetables. Store covered in refrigerator or freezer. -mh

STACKED GRILLED CHEESE. My wife and I enjoyed your recent article on grilled cheese sandwiches. We may just try some of the suggested variations! We like to include pickle slices in ours. We typically use the pre-sliced Vlasic Stackers dill pickles. Timing is important with these. You really don’t want to heat the pickle itself, so you need to pull the sandwich apart right after it comes off the griddle, before the cheese-glue “sets,” to insert the pickle slice. An alternative is to incorporate a slice or two of deli ham next to one of the bread slices, so that this quick action isn’t needed. John

Your humble columnist, being a huge fan of pickles, found this idea to be a bit off putting, if not downright odd. Hot melted cheese and cold dill pickles?! I must apologize for jumping to conclusions. I tried it. Oh my! Absolutely delicious. Next, I’m going to try Vlasic Bread and Butter Stackers. Your instructions are spot on, John. -mh

RETIRED BUT NOT FINISHED YET. I have been reading your blog for years and have used so many of your fabulous tips and I would like to add one that I’ve never seen mentioned. As a dusting/cleaning rag, I have found nothing beats a good, old fashioned cotton diaper. I buy two dozen very clean (they’ll never be that white again!) “retired” diapers from Dy-Dee Diaper Service in Pasadena, Calif. for $22.90. They last an incredibly long time and I feel good about giving the diapers a second life and keeping them out of the landfill. Stacie

What a great idea. As I looked into this I find that mechanics, contractors and all kinds of service people buy up retired diapers just about as fast as they become available for purchase. Every diaper service I contacted across the country, including your Dy-Dee company, sells its retired stock as diapers are removed from service. Some sell by the dozen (as low as 50 cents per diaper), others by the pound ($3 to $5 per pound seems  standard). Some companies require local pickup but others will ship.

Rather than try to list all of the companies here, I suggest you search “diaper service” in your local area and then give that company a call. -mh