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Friday, April 18, 2014

My Top Decluttering Tip

We all just have too much stuff.  Packed in among all of our treasures and comforts that we are lucky to have is a bunch of detritus -- the bits of projects, the things we feel we should reuse (but never will), and the things we feel we should keep (but really should throw away).

I'm not explicitly a non-consumer, although I do admire their discipline. I do like to shop, so I'll probably never be one of those people who embraces a "100 item" challenge.  Have you heard of these?  You can search online to see people who have pruned their belongings down to 100 items.  Even if you allow me 100 categories (like "underwear" or "DVDs"), I'm not sure I could do it.

However, Mr. FC&G and I are engaged in a slow decluttering process, much along the lines of this article.  The article suggests removing one item from your living environment each day.  Doesn't sound like much, but it adds up over time.  Just this morning, I cut the pretty buttons off a sweater that had started to run and sag, and I threw the sweater away.  (It wasn't any use as rags, and, sorry to say, I'm not ever going to unravel it and knit something new with the yarn.)  I've been doing this pretty consistently since the beginning of the year, and I'm pleased to say that I'm starting to see light on my closet shelves!

My top decluttering tip?  As you know from reading this blog, Mr. FC&G and I would like to move permanently or on a partial-year basis to Key West.  This is going to happen some time between next week and a decade from now, depending on how quickly we declutter and how quickly we sort out the income complexities.  But right now, our most effective decluttering strategy is to ask one another, "Do you want to move this to Key West?"  Somehow, invoking visions of us carefully wrapping and hauling a chipped dish or a broken tool 1,000 miles usually tips the balance in favor of a discard.

Sometimes, you just have to keep the larger goal in sight.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: March 2014

Never let it be said that I don't practice what I preach. In my quest to take responsibility for some of my food production, I've continued to plant lots and harvest a little during March.  Thank heavens for the farmer's markets and stores that help us supplement, because March is such a difficult month!  You start planting and working the ground and doing the labor of growing your food, but there is precious little immediate pay off.

However, I did harvest six ounces of greens from the sunroom, along with one key lime that was the perfect complement to a fish dinner.  I also spent $16.90 ordering a dwarf bay tree.  Although I had promised myself that I was done building the micro-orchard, I have discovered that organic bay leaves are going to drive me to the poor house if I keep making my clove-ginger ale every week.  The new tree, plus an experiment regrowing ginger rhizomes, will hopefully help keep costs at bay.  (Plant pun!  See what I did there?)

Nonetheless, March brought a couple of milestones.  We have now officially harvested over a pound of food from our garden this year, and the total value of the harvest now stands in double-digit dollars at $11.66. We're not rich yet, and we haven't yet turned an official profit, but we are getting into the "respectable" territory for our totals with the year only one-quarter done.

I would anticipate that April and May could well start bringing some substantial harvests.  I have two containers full of potatoes that are growing nicely (see them sprouting above), and the transplants for the garden are coming along well.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 17
Pounds: 1.0625

Total Value of Harvest: $11.66
Expenditures: -212.21
Total: $200.55
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Friday, April 11, 2014

Super-Quick Rice Soup for Two

Ever have one of those days?  You know the ones -- you are working until the last possible minute, leaving virtually no time before you have to head back out to evening commitments?

It seems like we have as many of these days as everyone else, even though Mr. FC&G and I work primarily from home.  Somehow my fantasies of stopping work at a reasonable hour always vanish in the face of yet another deadline.  I rarely get to spend a weekday afternoon cooking a really special dinner.

During a particular crunch this week, I needed to make dinner and have us eat in about 45 minutes so we could leave in time for an early evening appointment.  It was here that I was rescued by the fortuitous combination of home canning and leftovers.

Super-Quick Rice Soup for Two
1 quart homemade stock
2-3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups pre-cooked, leftover rice
1 t. marjoram (homegrown and dried)

Slice carrots and add to stock and marjoram in large sauce pan.  Bring to a low boil and cook until carrots are your desired consistency; we like them done but with a bit of a crunch, so this was about 15 minutes. Reduce heat.

Add leftover, pre-cooked rice to soup and heat until warm.  (If you start with uncooked instant rice, you can cook it along with the step above by cooking it in the soup itself.  Just don't obey the package directions of the rice to liquid ratio, or you won't have soup at all!)

Serves two, quickly.

The Analysis
Fast:  This homemade soup was on the table in fewer than 20 minutes, and we were out the door on time.

Cheap:  Since I was relying on leftovers in the form of rice and homemade items (stock and marjoram), the only thing I really wound up using up from supplies was carrots.  Hopefully, that will change this summer. This was super cheap.

Good:  Gourmet?  No.  But actually, this tasted a good bit better than your average canned soup, which means we had a more-sustainable and healthier version of that classic quick meal.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Spring Challenge: Take Responsibility for Your Food

I was sitting at yoga the other day waiting for class to begin, and I got into a great conversation with a fellow yogini about the purity of the food supply and the necessity of finding clean, whole foods.  We agreed that part of the problem is that consumers have abdicated responsibility for growing/raising/procuring food, putting a lot of responsibility onto farmers.  They, in turn, must use conventional rather than organic methods to get the largest yield per acre in order to feed a whole bunch of people who are raising and growing nothing.

This is not a crack against farmers, by the way.  Those who I have spoken to take the responsibility to feed the country (and beyond) seriously.   But I am saying that the rest of us should take that responsibility a little more seriously ourselves.  (By analogy, the fact that I have a mechanic doesn't mean I should know nothing about taking care of my car.  Just because I teach college doesn't mean my students should never pick up a book and learn something without me.)

The situation we have now is an historic anomaly.  Something in the neighborhood of 95 percent of this country works in non-farm jobs, counting on that 5 percent or so to produce the lion's share of our food.  That's not sustainable.  We all need some skin in the game, if only to diversify risk.

So here's my challenge for you.  Whatever you are doing this season to produce food for yourself, I want you to commit to doing one or two more things.  I'm not asking you to stop going to the grocery store or even to take a "100 mile pledge" of eating locally.  Just amp up your food production.  If every household did this, imagine the weight it would take off a food production system that is becoming ever more centralized and unsustainable.

Here are your challenge levels:

You: Have a farm, a garden, or a bunch of raised beds.  Your seed orders are in, your seedlings are sprouting, and you are starting to work the soil.  You are READY.  You are already in this.
Your challenge:  Grow/raise/procure something you've never worked with before.  Try a gourmet version of a vegetable, like daikon radishes or spaghetti squash.  Learn to fish if you don't already know and have a place for wild, edible fish.  Put in a couple of blueberry bushes or a rhubarb plot.

You:  Have some outdoor space, but it is limited.  Think patio, deck, balcony, or a limited yard. Or, your neighbors or neighborhood covenant would freak out at the site of too much food production. Or, you physically can't commit to tilling up a bunch of ground.
Your challenge:  Sneak at least one veggie into your containers or foundation plantings.  Potatoes make a great food crop, and the vines and flowers are seriously lovely.  Try a container variety of corn or beans.  Or, I've never known a neighbor hard-hearted enough to protest a single container tomato plant.  Look for dwarf or container varieties of your favorite veggies or fruits.  Take the shortcut you have to take to get you inspired -- buy a bag of organic potting soil to fill a container if you don't have access to a compost pile.

You:  Want to participate, but you have no outdoor space that is suitable for growing.
Your challenge:  Find a windowsill that gets 8 or more hours of sun per day, or buy a desk lamp and put a grow bulb in it.  (I do this to start my seeds.)  Grow an expensive-to-buy herb or two.  Basil is practically a cash crop, given that it is so expensive to buy fresh basil leaves in the store.  Rosemary handles the chill of a winter window sill admirably.  A bay tree will live in a container and produce for a long time.

You:  Seriously don't think you can do this.  You don't have the space, or you don't think you have the time, or your job keeps you on the road too much.
Your challenge:  Sprouts and microgreens will grow to edible size in less than 2 weeks, making them a good crop for times when you are at home.  Because of their short lifespan, they don't require quite the light that long-growing plants do.  (I do shine a grow light on my sprouts to retard mold, however.)  Or, put an aloe plant on your desk in the office.  They do well in low light, and, although relatively rarely eaten, do serve a medicinal purpose.

What challenge are you accepting to take more responsibility for food production this year?  Sound off in the comments -- I need new ideas for me, too!

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The One Trick You Must Know For Huge Potato Harvests

If you really want to get huge potato harvests this year, you need to follow this simple trick.  Before putting the seed spud in the trench or pot, wrap it in a piece of tissue paper.

Know why?
So it won't get dirt in its eyes!

(And thanks to my Mom, who has gotten me with that joke every single year!)
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Monday, March 31, 2014

Five Garden Things to Do When the Weather Won't Cooperate

See that?  That's from a week ago, when apparently we were supposed to get both spring-like weather and snow within 24- and sometimes 12-hour periods.  Welcome to Ohio.

This winter has been particularly stressful for we who garden, mostly because it won't really quit.  Every day, we look at the weather to see what garden task we can do -- nice days are usually corrupted by that pesky thing called "paying work," so the snowy days are even more frustrating.

Nonetheless, I've managed to get some gardening done, and I have a good start on lots of tasks.  So here's five things you can do while you wait out the indeterminate weather.
  1. Start some seeds.  I started pepper seeds in early February and basil and tomatoes shortly thereafter. My plants are pretty big by now, which means I'll be transferring the peppers to their final large container homes in the sunroom very shortly, awaiting the weather warming up in May or June for the move of the containers outside.
  2. Focus on cool-weather crops.  Potatoes, peas, carrots, and greens are all cold hardy, which means you can plant them with very minimal protection.  I have a makeshift cold frame that will be getting the first carrots later today, and I have two containers of potatoes in the sunroom along with the first of the peas and some greens.
  3. Work the soil.  If you've had a snowy winter, your soil is probably pretty easy to work right now.  We have easily broadforked and amended with peat moss a good deal of our garden plot, awaiting spring planting. Mr. FC&G has also cut sod to broaden the main garden, and he reports it is an easier job than it would be later in the year.  Just don't work boggy soil, or you will have a hard, clay-y mess later!
  4. Clean your tools.  Every year, I think I'm going to spend the winter washing tools and pots and sharpening hoe and trimmer blades, and every year I don't.  Take advantage of a warm-ish day to sit outside and do this task, even if your ground is too cold or wet to work.
  5. Add to compost.  If you can't do anything else for your garden during cold spells, you at least feed your compost pile.  Wood ash from fireplaces and egg shells from baking are two compost additions that you can find when undertaking activities that take the chill off the house. 
Have you started planting yet?  Or are you waiting out the cold?
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Friday, March 28, 2014

Quick Welsh Rarebit

Much like I love to learn traditional skills and wear clothes inspired by the 1950s and 60s, I love cooking vintage recipes.  One of the best ways of finding recipes that don't depend on processed food, are designed to be frugal, and use healthy ingredients is to take a trip through a vintage cookbook.

Today's recipe, Welsh Rarebit, is inspired by one found in the 1930s section of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren.  However, I've altered it a good deal.

The original recipe is a basic cheese sauce built on a roux.  I've kept that part, but I've added some homemade stock to loosen the sauce up a bit.  I've also amped up the flavor profile.  Recipes from the 1920s and 1930s, especially, have a tendency to be a bit bland to modern tastes, especially to mine.  (You should see this vintage recipe I have for "Frank Sinatra's Mom's Spaghetti."  I highly doubt Mrs. Sinatra brought a recipe from the old country that had a quarter teaspoon each of pepper and oregano as its only spice!)

Anyway, thanks to the miracle of modern shredded cheese, this recipe comes together in about 10-15 minutes, making it perfect for a quick dinner between evening commitments or a late night snack.  Reliance on cheese, of course, means that you have a meal that doesn't use up the expensive grass-fed, pastured, and/or organic meat from the freezer, helping the budget.

Quick Welsh Rarebit
1 T. butter
1 T. flour
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup stock
1/2 pound shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 t. dry mustard
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 t. salt
Paprika for dusting

Melt butter in heavy sauce pan; stir in the flour and cook on low heat for about 2 minutes.  Add the half-and-half and cook another 3-5 minutes stirring constantly.  Add stock and stir until blended.  Add cheese, mustard, salt, and Worcestershire sauce, and stir until cheese is melted and flavors are blended.

Serve over thick toasted bread with a dusting of paprika.

Serves four.

The Analysis
Fast:  This recipe is going to become a regular for us since it cooks up so quickly.  It will be ideal in the summer, when a few garden veggies on the side will make a really pleasant and basic meal.

Cheap:  As I indicated, certainly cheaper than the meat entree it replaces, which makes this nice for the budget.

Good:  This recipe is really delicious, belying its humble roots.  As with many homemade items, I also like the fact that I could use my own homemade stock and could opt for organic or hormone free ingredients, like the dairy products and the flour.

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