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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quick Singapore Noodles

Recently, I had the pleasure of having Singapore noodles at a local Thai restaurant.  This dish was right up my alley, being rice noodles and veggies in a yellow curry sauce, so I knew I had to try to replicate it.

It was also a great chance to create a low-cost, vegetarian dinner that comes together quickly, thanks to the purchase of just one packaged item. In this recipe, I used whole wheat spaghetti in place of the rice noodles, and I used Trader Joe's yellow curry sauce, along with fresh garden veggies.

Quick Singapore Noodles
Whole wheat spaghetti -- enough for four portions, boiled
1 bottle Trader Joe's yellow curry sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
4-8 ounces of carrots, cubed
1 large handful kale, roughly chopped
1 T. olive oil

In large sautee pan, cook chopped onions in olive oil until translucent and carrots until soft.  Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti.

When onions and carrots are cooked to taste, add noodles, curry sauce, and kale.  Cook until kale is wilted and sauce is hot.

Serves 4

The Analysis
Fast:  This took about 30 minutes from the time I hit the garden to pull the carrots until I put the dish on the table

Cheap:  Very inexpensive.  The most expensive element is the prepared curry sauce, and that cost is spread over four servings.

Good:  This was a pretty close copy of the Thai restaurant version.  I liked the dish better with whole wheat noodles than with the rice noodles, but obviously you can play with using any noodle you like.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Saving Bean Seeds

This year, we had a bumper crop of pole beans that I grew on a tepee-like structure on the edge of the garden.  I was not very organized about letting some of the bean pods mature to save seeds, but when I went to cut down the vines, I was pleased to see many pods near the base that I had missed, leaving me with lots of seed for next year.

Saving bean seeds is one of the easiest ways to start saving seed for your next garden, thus preserving heirloom lines and saving you money.  For beans like this (either pole beans or bush varieties), simply wait until the seeds are mature inside the pod.  You can tell because you will be able to both see and feel the bean seeds as "bumps" in the pod.  At this stage, some people call these beans "shellies" or "shell-outs."

Ideally, you harvest your shellies when the pod is dry, but I had to take a few handsful when they were still green and let them dry on the kitchen counter.  When they are dry, pop open the pods and pop out the seed.

Bonus tip:  When you cut down your bean vines, don't pull up the roots; cut the vines off at the soil line.  The roots of legumes like beans and peas fix nitrogen in the soil in little nodules on their roots.  Leaving the roots in the soil means richer soil next year.

The Analysis
Fast:  Just as fast as harvesting beans to eat!

Cheap:  Saving your own seed will save you the seed cost of your crop next year.

Good:  Saving seed also helps us preserve biodiversity of garden crops, as you will be continuing a line of heirloom seeds that slowly becomes adapted to your microclimate.
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: September 2014

As expected, September was a much slower garden month than was August.  With only $65 worth of produce harvested, it is starting to look like this year's garden will be of a smaller monetary value than last year.

However, I'm not disappointed, because the variety of produce has been much better.  As I've mentioned, last year's garden pretty much lived on the production of cucumbers and zucchini.  That was very helpful, but it didn't give quite the variety we might have wanted.  This year was much better. 

This year, we had much more in the way of tomatoes.  I plan an entire post about the tomatoes once they finish up, but as of now, these are the varieties that gave me 10 pounds (160 ounces) or more:
  • Cuor di Bue: 187 ounces from one plant
  • San Marzano: 191 ounces from one plant
  • Steakhouse: 158 ounces from three plants (very close!)
As I will detail in a future post, the best performers by far came from my good friend in Tennessee.  I now need to figure out whether it was the early start or the growing method while young that made the difference.  One thing is for sure:  I'm growing these varieties again.  Also, I'm definitely using Neptune's Harvest (an organic seaweed fertilizer) while they are young.

Also notable on the tomato front was the production from volunteer tomatoes.  Granted, I did have nearly a dozen volunteers in containers and in what I called "volunteer row," a semi-shaded garden row that I didn't have anything else planned for.  Nonetheless, I got 117 ounces of volunteer tomatoes to date, and they are still growing both outside and in containers in the sunroom.  

Other important crops this month were peppers, carrots, and potatoes.  Carrots and potatoes add very little value to our overall savings tally, but they are very important to us as far as nutrition.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,408.5
Pounds: 150.53125

Total Value of Harvest: $574.47
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $288.34
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Should You Grow Tomatoes in Grow Boxes?

This year, our good friends gave us some tomato boxes that they were no longer using.  (You can see the ones for sale here.)  I was excited about trying them, because tomato boxes seem to be a great way for gardeners with little space to grow full-size tomatoes, and I wanted to give it a try and report to my FC&G readers.

We got the boxes around the first of June, so we were a little late in planting in them.  Nonetheless, I put three cucumber vines that I thinned from the garden into one, and two volunteer tomatoes into the other.  For soil, I used sifted compost alone, with no soil amendments, because I was too late and too lazy to go get peat moss or any kind of soil lightener.  You can see what the boxes looked like by the middle of July in the photo.

First, the bad news.  My cucumbers didn't make it, and that didn't have anything to do with the boxes.  I got two or three cucumbers off the vines before they succumbed to a cucumber beetle attack that I fought over Fourth of July weekend.  The poor things didn't have a chance, although I think the limited amount of soil in the boxes also meant that there was nowhere for the roots to spread to help nourish the plant while it battled the invaders.

The tomatoes were a different story.  Although I only got maybe a half a dozen fruits off my two tomato plants, the vines were healthy and happy.  In fact, they are still setting fruit.  With a frost scheduled for this weekend, I will be considering whether I need to try to bring the boxes indoors or if the heat sink created by the house wall is enough to protect them from one cold night.

So, I'm going to go ahead and pronounce the grow boxes a moderate success, although I may update my analysis when I do a final tomato tally for the year.  I'll know more when I finally pull these vines and see what the roots look like, but I certainly plan to use the boxes for tomatoes again.  Who knows, once I get good at growing in boxes, maybe I'll be more ready for the day that we retire to the south!

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Friday, September 26, 2014

On Etsy and Buying Handmade

One of the ways to live sustainably is to buy local and handmade items when you choose to consume.  Knowing your producer and his or her production methods means that you know a bit more about materials used and how the items were produced.  That's why I've always been pleased to sell on Etsy, the online home for handmade items.

My shop, Carrot Creations, sells sustainable living products.  The best-sellers are our yoga socks, which feature a unique design and which allow you to practice your yoga and other barefoot exercise more comfortably in cold studios.

I've worked hard at my product line, and I think our customers appreciate it.  (Thank you!)  That's why I'm watching with interest the changes at Etsy.

As you can see from this article, Etsy has recently allowed businesses to use outside manufacturers for their goods.  In other words, a business can expand beyond the homemade realm and go into larger scale production.

On the one hand, I applaud this.  It's nice that Etsy has allowed small businesses to grow into medium-sized ones and still use the platform as their e-commerce site.  I think that's great.

But I'm concerned that, as the article suggests, this allows large-scale, overseas operations with exploitative working conditions to pass their goods off as something that belongs on Etsy -- that is, as something made with great care and individuality.  In the process, these large producers can swamp a small business.

So I'm waiting to see.  In the meantime, as the holidays approach, I ask this of you if you care about supporting small business:  ask questions.  Ask shop owners questions about where they are from and how they produce their items; a good shop owner loves getting questions through the conversation function.  And realize that a flood of items priced very cheaply probably means a production method that is less kind to workers.

All we ask is that our customers shop smart and shop according to their values.  Beyond that, I know I speak for many small shop owners when I say that I hope that competition sharpens us all rather than submerging us under a flood of poorly-made goods.
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Friday, September 19, 2014

Quick Garden Confetti Rice with Masala Meatballs

Last post, we talked about getting dinner on the table every night, even with a challenging schedule. Today, I wanted to share with you a meal we had this week that was easy to make and that illustrates that you don't have to make every single component of a meal by hand to still have a homecooked meal.

Quick Garden Confetti Rice with Masala Meatballs

1 lb. ground beef (I used organic, grass-fed)
1 lb. pork sausage (I used pastured pork)
1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
1 egg (I used pastured)
1 jar Indian masala sauce (mine was Patak's)

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl and shape into meatballs somewhat larger than a golf ball.  Top with masala sauce, cover with foil, and cook in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.  (Sometimes, these take 60 minutes for me if my meat isn't completely thawed.)

1 box Rice-a-Roni rice pilaf flavor
(You need about a handful chopped of each veggie.)

Meanwhile, with about 20 minutes til dinner, start cooking the boxed Rice-a-Roni.  Dice and add the veggies in this order:  carrots, then peppers, and then kale right before serving.  This allows the harder veggies to cook through without losing the integrity of the kale.

By using a boxed side dish mix and jarred sauce, meal prep was much quicker than if everything was made from scratch, but the main components of the meal -- meat, egg, and veggies -- came from sustainable sources (including my garden).  Plus, dinner was on the table in the time it took Mr. FC&G to drive home from work.  This recipe made about four complete servings, plus maybe an extra meatball or two.

The Analysis

Fast:  45-60 minutes is about as long as I'll spend cooking a weeknight dinner, so this fits in at the upper end.

Cheap:  The meat was about $10, and the sauce and Rice-a-Roni probably added about $3, plus some added expense for a bit of bread crumbs and a pastured egg.  Call it $14 for four servings, of about $3.50 per serving.  I don't think you could do a frozen meal or drive-through for much cheaper, and of course this is better for you.

Good:  This made a really complete meal, with fresh garden veggies and high quality protein from the sustainably-raised meat and egg.  It was also incredibly good, with the veggies and rice balancing out the heat from the masala sauce.  Plus, the leftovers meant that Mr. FC&G had something hot to eat even when he came home from work the next night at midnight.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Cook Dinner Every Night (Almost)

Over the past couple of weeks, the blogosphere has been a-blogging about the recent article in Slate that contends that making dinner every night places an undue burden on women, especially working mothers, and therefore might not be worth the trade-off.

My initial reaction to this piece was, "what trade-off?"  We all have to eat dinner, and, for most of us, neither our waistlines nor our overall health nor our wallets will allow us to eat out every night or subsist on wholly-prepared grocery foods (like heat-and-eat dinners).  So actually going into that big room with all the expensive appliances and rattling some pots and pans seems like a necessity, not an option.

But is it oppressive and an undue burden?  For one perspective, I invite you to visit my friend and colleague Natasha over at Dance Love Sing Live.  I can personally attest to the fact that Natasha can juggle multiple writing and editing jobs, homeschooling, a farm, and some food allergies and sensitivities, all without becoming oppressed.  The last time I saw her, she had spent the morning chasing a 1200 pound bull, and yet her hair was perfectly done and her lipstick was on.  I promise you want to follow along with her on her blog.

Anyway, Natasha can give you the working farm mom perspective, but I thought I'd share the suburban sustainability perspective.  For those of you just tuning in, Mr. FC&G and I are a family of two with four businesses, an active amateur ballroom dance schedule, and a large garden.  So here's how we get dinner on the table every night, along with most of our lunches and all of our breakfasts, without experiencing any oppression or unacceptable trade-offs.

Saturday and Sunday
These are our big cooking days, especially Sunday.  At least one day each weekend, we go all-out in making a big meal.  This might be a pot roast, a pork roast, a roast chicken, or a homemade lasagna.  In the summer, Mr. FC&G heads out to the fire pit and cooks a ton of burgers, fish, and kosher hot dogs.  Alongside all of these meats, we cook whatever veggies are in season: potatoes, whipped butternut squash, shredded zucchini and tomatoes, or the like.

Note that these are big meals, but they aren't all that complex.  One of the easiest things you can do is roast a bird or a cut of meat; you pretty much just put it in the roasting pan for a couple of hours and baste it once in a while.  Likewise, grilling out takes very little extra time to add some extra burgers or salmon fillets to the grill top once the fire is going.  But all of these "large" meals will throw off maybe two more dinners for each of us, along with a lunch or two for Mr. FC&G.

Weeknights are usually taken up with us trying to wrap up work and head off to dance or work out, so we rely on simple meals.  These might include:

  • Leftovers: the exact same meal we had on Sunday, reheated
  • Pollo saltado, made with the leftover chicken
  • Wrap sandwiches with shredded pork or chicken and fresh garden veggies
  • Homemade spaetzle with jarred sauce (mine or store-bought organic) and cheese
  • Beef and sausage meatballs in a jarred masala sauce
  • Cheesy potato soup or similar hearty soup
  • Grilled cheese and canned or boxed tomato soup
All of these are accompanied by garden veggies in season. None of these meals take long to prepare or eat.

I eat all of my lunches at home, so I'll depend on more traditional lunches like salads of garden veggies or PB&J (one of my favorites!).  But Mr. FC&G is at a client site most days, so he takes a lunch with him 3-4 days a week to save money and give him a healthier option.  To make this happen, we package up a lunch for him while we are cleaning up the dishes; often, he'll take the leftovers of dinner, but sometimes we'll make a wrap sandwich or something similar that will travel well.

I find cooking relaxing, so I often incorporate some kitchen time into my relaxation.  I might make bread, bake cookies, or even dabble in making yogurt or sour cream.  I also have a number of food activities I can do while I work, like making a batch of homemade ginger ale in the crock pot or drying fresh herbs for future meals.  I also like to can items that will stock the pantry:  homemade tomato sauce, beef stew, or soup stock.  All of these activities keep our pantry and fridge stocked with the elements that will make for easier meal prep on a busy night.

Friday (or Saturday) is often our night out to eat, depending on schedule and budget constraints.  We try to choose a healthy option when we can, and we bring home any leftovers for the next day's lunch (if that's appropriate).

We rely on a few overall tips to keep us going through our week.

  • Cook in bulk.  Any time you are turning on an appliance, make extra of what you are cooking, whether that's cooking a whole roast for two people, making a double batch of spaetzle, or making an extra grilled cheese.  Never cook just one meal if you can help it.  If you turn on the oven, make it do its job by making a loaf of bread alongside that roast or otherwise combining foods that need to cook at the same temp.
  • Process the food immediately.  What makes leftovers difficult is turning them into another meal:  cold roast or chicken gets hard to shred or cut, and it is unmotivating to turn the leftovers of almost anything into something else once they've been stored a while.  Go ahead and cut your leftovers down into the form you will need them later in the week while they are still warm and fairly appetizing: shred, trim, slice, or the like.  Don't forget to put bones in the stock bucket to make stock for soup.
  • Package future servings.  Again, it's the prep that keeps people from packing lunches.  Have some glass containers that will go from fridge to microwave, and go ahead and package up the next day's lunch while you are doing the dishes.  That way, it is easy to grab and go.

Do you have great ideas for speeding up meal prep?  Let me know in the comments!

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