Thursday, December 30, 2010

Getting Started with Sustainability in 2011

Amazingly, it has been a year since I started this blog; hopefully, you have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.  We will certainly be continuing our journey into sustainable living in 2011, but I thought it may be useful as the last post of the year to do something that is part retrospective and part overview.

If your New Year's resolution is to live more sustainably, you may wonder where to start.  For me, I think the best place is with ideas that fix a problem you currently have, minimize something you don't like to do, or maximize something you do enjoy. 

For example, I have frequently explained that the gas bill around here drives me batty.  Somehow, it just becomes the ultimate in paying for something that I've already used up by the time the bill comes -- yeah, I was warm one day a month ago when the heat was running full blast, but now the bill is here and I hate to pay it.  So, the ideal way for me to make changes in how sustainably I lived was projects that kept my house and me warm without running up a monster gas bill. 

So, if you are just starting out, here are some common goals and feelings you may have, along with some ideas to improve your life by living sustainably:

I hate paying the heat bill, but I hate being cold.
I have an expensive food treat that I want to use to its best advantage.
  • Feature an artisinal cheese this way in summer or winter.
  • Feature a special meat next to piles of veggies.
  • Stretch the expensive food.
I want to explore herbal remedies.
I hate buying cleaning products.
I hate buying personal care products.
I want to start preserving food.
I want to lower my food bill.
I want to boost my sustainable cred with some resource-friendly projects.

(Note:  This is not an exhaustive 2010 index, but I did try to include the posts that attracted the most discussion here, on my Facebook page under Hilltop Communications, or in person.)

Happy New Year!  Let's make 2011 even more sustainable!
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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I made dinner for $1.09.

Monday night, I made dinner for $1.09.  I was incredibly proud of myself, and I think this little triumph illustrates a couple of principles about how I live sustainably.

First, the details:  This is really the winter version of this recipe, which has consistently been one of the favorites among blog readers.  This time, I used pesto frozen in September and sundried (actually, dehydrator-dried, but "sundried" sounds better) tomatoes.  I also used a lovely block of artisinal asiago cheese that was part of a holiday basket sent to me by a client (thanks, guys -- you know who you are!).  Therefore, total cost to me was $1.09 for a box of Meijer pasta, which I thought was highway robbery (I stock up at 79 cents per box) but which got much better once I had made my el-cheapo meal.  I've gotten 5-6 servings out of this; if you are doing the math, we are hovering around 20 cents a serving.

My sustainability lessons?

First, the practical one:  If you have a recipe that works for you in the summer, do everything in your power to find a winter version.  Would I have preferred to make this with fresh basil and fresh tomatoes, standing barefoot in my kitchen with the still-warm veggies in a basket by my elbow?  Absolutely.  But I know that the combination works, so I dried as many tomatoes as I could, and I made pesto like it was going out of style.  It tastes almost as good when I make it while I have a fire going and a nice pair of fleece socks on my feet.

Second, the philosophical lesson:  There is no room for absolutes in the sustainability movement.  The sustainability movement is gaining ground in this country, but still it seems that the most interesting media coverage is of people who have taken a locavore pledge that prohibits food from a distance.  One of my favorite books, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, examines a year without non-local food, and many others have taken a pledge that if the food comes from more than 100 miles (or 50, or 200) away, they won't eat it.  I try to do likewise as much as possible.  Certainly, I prefer food that is hyper-local; that is, I think the best food is that which you walk into the backyard to obtain.

However, we do have a transportation network in this country, and I have no problem with using it to transport the occasional treat, like artisinal cheeses from Amish Country or maple candy from Vermont or citrus from  Florida.  The key concept there is "treat" -- the occasional box of something that is specific to a certain part of the country, sent by mail or FedEx, or tucked into luggage.  A little taste of somewhere else that punctuates a diet that is overwhelmingly local.  A small nugget of something specific to its own locale that is so precious by its unfamiliarity that you stop and taste and discuss.  Something different that throws your own local efforts into relief so that you appreciate every element anew.

We appreciated this meal that highlighted a gift not just for its budget-saving properties (perhaps least because of that), but because it was a rare treat that we savored.  If  I found a stack of this same cheese sitting heaped up at my local Wal-Mart, having been trucked from its origin to a distribution center to my local store, I would not appreciate it as much.  If I bought it every week, I would miss out not only on its specialness but on the joys of making my own ricotta and patronizing local cheese makers.  For something this good to become ordinary would be a crime -- and it would be unsustainable.
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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Student's Ragout AKA Stewed Students

One of the best ways to save money when cooking at home is to look for what I call "peasant meals."  If you can find recipes that were made by poor but busy people, you ae almost guaranteed a yummy and cheap meal.  A good clue to whether your recipe is a "peasant meal" is if it takes a cheap cut of meat and simmers it for a long time to make it tender.

This is the case with Student's Ragout, which I believe I found in Mother Earth News a year or so ago; unfortunately, I cut the source citation off the top of the recipe, and I can't find it on the web site.  (So at least I tried for proper attribution here.)  It is an easy and filling recipe that tenderizes a tough cut of meat and creates tons of leftovers. 

The recipe supposedly was created by French (I believe) students who needed a cheap, easy, and flexible meal they could make for themselves on a budget.  Given my work in higher education, it is only natural that the name of this dish immediately morphed into "stewed students" around here in tribute to the students who do such a good job of keeping me on my toes.

2-4 slices bacon  (I like to splurge on Trader Joe's Applewood Smoked Bacon)
1 pound round steak, flank steak, or cube steak cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium onion
4-8 medium potatoes
2-3 carrots
1 clove garlic (optional)
sage, salt, and pepper to taste

Some recipes call for cooking the bacon first; often, we just layer it in the bottom of the pan, then add layers of meat, potatoes, carrots, and onion.  (Layer in order of tenderness of the ingredient.)  Add garlic, sage, and salt and pepper, then cover with water until just about level with the tops of the potatoes.  Cover and cook on medium until meat is cooked and veggies are tender, about 45 minutes.  (If you feel like things are burning rather than simmering, you may need to add water as you go.)  Don't mix the ingredients until they are done.  You see it above, served with some green veggies from the sunroom (yes, we still have lettuce growing in December this year!).

Makes 4-5 servings.

This is a great SOLE recipe for (not so) Urban Hennery, because we were able to use meat from our freezer (locally sourced, no hormones), the last of the cellared potatoes and onions and the last frozen carrots, and our own garlic and sage.  (I cooked this with the last onion, although the holidays have gotten my posts out of order a bit, so I have already written about switching to store onions.)  Really, the only thing that was not local was the bacon, and it was more sustainably produced that most store bacon.  If ever there was an excuse for loading up the freezer and the cellar during the fall, it is this recipe.

Nearly-vegetarian option:  This recipe works just fine without the steak, leaving you with bacon and veggies.  In fact, I sometimes do one pot of meaty ragout for hubby and one pot of low-meat ragout for me, which means we have leftovers for nearly a week!

The Analysis

Fast:  This is moderately time-intensive, as you do have to chop all the ingredients and then let it simmer.  But it sure isn't difficult work.

Cheap:  Cheap is the point of this one.  Load up on root veggies from your garden or farmer's market and some inexpensive cuts of meat, and your only financial splurge will be the bacon.

Good:  It is a balanced, filling, sustainable meal, which is welcome on a cold day.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sustainable Steak and Eggs

It is three days until Christmas, ten days until New Years, and five weeks until I can plant the first pepper seeds.  However you count it, in the Midwest it is time to hunker down and face some cold weather.  So, I thought the next few recipes would all be "snow shoveling" recipes -- things that are hearty and warm and rib-sticking. 

Today's meal idea is courtesy of Mr. FC&G (also known as my husband), and it is this week's SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, and ethical) recipe for (not so) Urban Hennery's Dark Days Challenge.  It is also quite frugal, which makes it a winner all around.  I speak, of course, of steak and eggs.

"Wait," you say.  "How is this pile of protein frugal, let alone sustainable?  Has the weather gotten to you already?"  (Indulge me, readers; I sometimes have conversations with you.  You are very witty, and you always ask just the right questions.)

In this case, sustainability and frugality are all about sourcing ingredients from the right places.  Think for a minute about summer.  You can buy organic produce from the big box retailers, and if that is your only option, I hope you are doing so.  But that produce is often fairly expensive and typically comes from far away.  Contrast this with the most local produce, that which you grow yourselves.  As you may remember, I spent last summer putting together plates of veggies with just a touch of artisinal cheese or meat and having lunch for under $1.  In many cases, local means frugal and sustainable.

The same is true for steak and eggs, lovingly prepared by Mr. FC&G.  The eggs we get from a local farmer at Bluestone Farm (sorry no web link).  At $1.50 a dozen for these orange-yolked beauties, hubby fried up three for just 39 cents.

Beside that sits a piece of sirloin tip steak that we also sourced locally by buying a quarter of a beef back in 2007; that was pretty much the last piece of that meat, so you can see that we don't go through it very quickly and we get the most out of every piece.  We bought that particular load of meat before I started blogging (and before I started putting little sticky notes with prices on everything), but I remember it being around $4-5 a pound.  Now, we get our meat from a local butcher who processes only hormone-free, sustainably raised meats (Landes Fresh Meats) for perhaps a little more per pound.  Regardless, this little bit of leftover steak surely came in at under $2.  Total meal cost for hubby:  under $2.50 and probably under $2.

Now, this plate of protein is not for everyone; in fact, if you are vegetarian (or mostly, like me) or vegan, you are probably thinking this is a pretty unappetizing idea.  But for the carnivores among us, it demonstrates an important point:  even a meal that has a reputation for being expensive can be had on the cheap and virtually guilt-free if you take some time to support your local merchants and farmers. 

The Analysis

Fast:  I'm pretty sure that Mr. FC&G cooked up his breakfast-as-dinner in under 15 mintues from leftover steak and farm-fresh eggs.

Cheap:  As I said above, certainly under $2.50 for this plate; what would you pay even in a greasy-spoon diner?  Would the quality be as good?

Good:  I can't vouch for this one, but Mr. FC&G seemed to be fortified enough to go run the snow blower after dinner.  Works for me!
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Monday, December 20, 2010

Hand Warmers

Welcome to my final installment of Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays!

If you celebrate Christmas, you have less than a week to put your gifts and treats together, and today's idea is a familiar concept in stocking-stuffer size:  hand warmers.

These little gems are a small-sized version of bed warmers, just for your pockets.  I took two 4.5 inch squares of fleece per hand warmer, sewed them up like a pillow, then filled with rice and spice (a rhyme, no less!).  These I filled with rice and sage, which made my pockets smell a bit like Thanksgiving stuffing; as I've mentioned before, lavender and cinnamon/cloves are also nice additions.

Microwave these for a minute and slide them in your coat pockets for a little bit of warmth while you are out in the cold.  I actually wound up walking to my destination one 20 degree day last week, and my hands remained toasty on the entire trip thanks to these little guys.  That's why I wanted to recommend them to you as a last-minute sustainable gift!

The Analysis

Fast:  I sewed and filled this pair in about 20 minutes.  Since they were for me, I seemed the top with the machine; if you are giving them as a gift, you may want to hand sew the top with blind stitch, which will take a little longer.

Cheap:  Fleece from the remnant bin, homegrown sage, and bulk rice -- these are literally pennies a piece.

Good:  Warm hands made a mile and a half walk pleasant in cold weather.
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Sustainable Bookshelf: Holiday Gift Edition

As part of my series Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays, I thought I would present you with a roundup of my favorite sustainability books.  These are some of the ones that I want in hard copy on my shelf just in case I'm ever without the ability to use the internet or an e-reader, although you certainly could buy an e-reader version or check them out from the library if you are wanting to be even more frugal.  However, I think any one of them, in hard copy, could make a great gift for the sustainably-minded on your list.

Mini-Farming:  Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre is my new gift for myself.  It covers the basics of space-conscious gardening, seed saving, preserving, and raising chickens for meat and eggs.  While it is not an exhaustive resource for a beginner, it does serve as a kind of catalog of what can be done in a very small space, allowing the reader to choose the projects he or she wishes to attempt.  It also makes a subtle but compelling case that those of us on suburban lots could sustain ourselves by our own efforts if the need arose.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is the classic of the modern sustainability movement, and it presents a highly-readable and in-depth argument against the modern food establishment and toward a greater connection with what we eat.  In spite of the indictments against some of our society's agricultural misdeeds, it emerges as an optimistic account of the things we can do to live more sustainably and reap more enjoyment in the process.  This is a winter must-read, if only because it will have you reading the seed catalogs and dreaming of your spring efforts.

Speaking of things that have you jonesing for spring, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle remains one of my favorite books.  In fact, it spends whole weeks sitting on the ottoman where I can reach it and read the bits associated with either my current season or the season I wish I were in.  The book is organized into months and accounts a year in the Kingsolver family's life as they attempt to live nearly solely off the products of their own land and community.  However, unlike some of the "stunt journalism" that sets a writer up to live sustainably with very little experience or knowledge, these folks aren't kidding:  they've farmed for years.  Therefore, there is very little angst and a lot of joy described here. 

Think you can't sew?  If you have a sewing machine and can run a fairly straight stitch, you can do most of the projects in this book.  Projects range from the simple (like napkins and pillowcases) to the slightly-more-intermediate (wrap skirts and PJ pants).  Patterns are included.  I love this book for the inspiration it gives me for projects to try with a yard or two of remnant fabric and a couple of hours, tops.

Stitch 'n Bitch taught me to knit, plain and simple.  After years of trying to knit using the kinds of books you get in the yarn store -- and failing miserably -- this book had me knitting in a couple of nights.  This would be a great gift wrapped with some nice knitting needles (bamboo is sustainable) and some organic cotton yarn.

I learned to crochet from my mom, so I have been doing that for years.  Therefore, I can't vouch as personally for Stoller's ability to teach crochet.  However, what I can tell you is that, with all due respect to those who favor the hook or the sticks, some things you knit and some things you crochet.  Some yarns look prettier knitted, some look better crocheted.  Sometimes you want the texture created by one, sometimes the other.  Learn both.

I hope this helps your holiday shopping! 
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Veggie Pizza

For me, winter is the busy time of year.  I'm working both jobs (writer and college administrator), and both are busy.  For whatever reason, December through February is just the prime money-making months in my writing biz, and they coincide with the second quarter of college, during which I not only have administrative duties but I also teach two classes.  It makes me yearn for the easiness of summer, when both jobs are at their low and I spend some time every day in the garden.

However, while making hay while the sun isn't shining, I need some easy meals.  Like most of us, I fall back on pizza.  But pizza doesn't have to be fatty, non-local, expensive, or delivered.  My go-to is the veggie pizza, and it is also my attempt at (not so) Urban Hennery's Dark Days Challenge (cooking SOLE:  sustainable, organic, local, ethical).

The crust is something I'm pretty proud of.  Yes, I start with a 37 cent Jiffy mix (not organic, but no HFCS), but I add a half a cup of flax seed meal to boost the omega-3 content and give it some body.  It really is yummy.

For sauce, I use the Meijer Naturals brand, which does incorporate some organic ingredients (specifically sugar, which is a good one if you are only going to pick one organic ingredient) plus has no HFCS and no GMOs.  I have to buy sauce this year because the garden tomatoes did so badly, but I think this is a responsible choice.

Toppings:  onions, sun dried tomatoes from the garden, sometimes peppers frozen from the garden, and Trader Joe's quattro frommagio cheese from cows that receive no growth hormones.  The only thing here I feel really guilty about is the onion:  I bought several farmer's market onions this summer and cellared them, but "some" is not really a great plan with the number we eat.  It is only December, and I have already weakened into buying store onions.  Next year, more onions, regardless of cost!

The Analysis

Fast:  If you keep your ingredients on hand, you really can have a pizza ready in the time it would take to wait for delivery.

Cheap:  The cheese is the expensive part, but I don't want to eat growth hormones if I can help it.  Nonetheless, the dependence on garden veggies instead of meat keeps this pizza under $6, and it is much better for you than any you could order.

Good:  I have come to think of pizza as a way to get veggies in my diet.  Get the base crust down in your repertoire, and you are ready to pile it high with veggies and have a quick meal any time.
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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Feverfew Chronicles, Continued

Earlier in the year, I told you about feverfew, and how it helped my regular headaches.  I thought that those of you pondering growing this herb would like an update.

I tried to dry the herb all summer because I knew I would need a supply when the plants were not productive, and I wanted to be prepared.  My research suggested that the herb would stay effective even when dried.

As the weather cooled, I noticed the fresh leaf of the herb was growing less effective for me; in the meantime, I was skipping "doses" because it would be cold or rainy and I didn't want to slog into the yard to get some.  My headaches came back, although not quite as frequent as before.

To combat this, I brought some clippings into the house and put them in a jar of water in the fridge, as you do with any herb you want to use fresh for several days.  I didn't notice those leaves being very effective, but I did notice the stems start to look like they were wanting to root.  I took the jar out of the fridge and let them do so for a few days, then planted them in fresh compost.

Voila!  Just about a month later, I have new feverfew shoots coming up out of this plant.  I have been nibbling around the edges of the older growth, and it tastes fresh and bright.  (As much as feverfew can--it still tastes like medicine.  I tell DH that it tastes like not having a headache.  And fresh certainly tastes better than the dried stuff.)

The best part is, this new growth is oh-so-effective.  I'm back to having a headache maybe one day a week, when my norm without it is more like 5-6 days.  Happy, happy!

Also, just as I suggested to you back in the original post, I told my doctor about it.  He had not heard of feverfew, but he asked some really good questions and made a note to investigate it.  He was fully supportive of my using the herb.

The Analysis

Fast:  I don't know quite how to assess on this dimension, but eating some feverfew is certainly as quick as popping an OTC pill.

Cheap:  Once again, I didn't start this project with the idea of monetary savings, although they are certainly possible if they keep me from buying ibuprofen at the rate I once was.  (Seriously, I've purchased one bottle since spring.  That is really unusual in this household.) 

Good:  The true cost I am avoiding is wear and tear on my body from pharmaceuticals.  This article from  Mother Earth News puts it best:

"Rather than herbs being too weak, many drugs are too strong, causing side effects ranging from annoying to insufferable. Do no harm is the first axiom of medicine. This means that treatment should begin at the lowest possible effective dose. Why use a bulldozer if a broom suffices? Herbs should be prescribed first. Only those who truly need stronger medicine should use drugs, which cost more and have a greater risk of side effects. Unfortunately, American medicine does the opposite. Doctors prescribe drugs first, and only when the drugs are intolerable do some doctors suggest herbs. We don’t need medicine that’s stronger. We need medicine that’s smarter. For many common ills, herbs are cheaper and smarter."
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fleece Patchwork (Un)Quilt

2015 Update:  This has been one of our most popular articles to date and is certainly our most popular pin on Pinterest.  If you got here through a pin, welcome!  Please take a look at our book, which has this idea and others in a handy bound format for your use:  Fast, Cheap, and Good

In today's installment of Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays, I'm going to encourage you to make a quilt.

No, I haven't gone round the bend here.  I am in love with this fleece patchwork quilt pattern, which is really quick and easy because there is no actual quilting involved -- that is, there is no batting between the layers and no top stitching.  Therefore, it might best be called a fleece blanket, but I like the idea of calling it an (un)quilt.

You already know of my love for the remnant bin at my favorite fabric store, Joann Fabric and Crafts.  The prices there are amazing; bolt ends and miscuts are sold at whatever that day's sale is on the fabric, plus 50% off for remnants, plus whatever coupons you have.  I can regularly score a yard of fabric for around $2.

For this project, all you need are remnants in fleece patterns and colors you like, plus a cut of fleece for backing.  Follow these simple steps:

1.  Cut the patchwork fleece into squares.  I use a 4.5 inch square quilting template because I like the look of random patches of regularly-cut fabric.  But feel free to get more complex or to try patterns like 9-patch squares (my next attempt).  Just remember that the more complex your patchwork, the more time it takes.

2.  Sew your squares together.  For me, I sew 14 squares to get the width; this is about five feet in width.  I like this width for a fleece quilt because bolts of fleece come in 58-60 inch widths, so this will fit the backing without piecing two cuts of fleece together to make the back.  That is difficult and unwieldy.  Five feet wide also allows me to put the quilt on my side of the (king) bed without disturbing over-heated hubby.

3.  Sew your width strips together to make about six feet in length.  Again, six feet is two yards of fleece, which is an inexpensive backing.  Alternately, you could patch the back as well, but that would be more work. 

4.  For this quilt, I bought a piece of bluish grey fleece for the back that was two yards long and about 60 inches wide.  It cost (after sale and coupons) about $14.  Place the backing and the topper with right sides together and machine sew on three sides, like you are making a pillow case.  For the fourth side (which would be open on a pillow case, turn the edges in and sew both sides together.  You can do this on your machine (remember, that is four thicknesses of fabric, so you may want to change to a heavier needle) or by blind stitch (which I'm going to do on my next quilt).

Voila!  A soft, warm "quilt" that really relies on the warmth of air sandwiched in two layers of fleece instead of the normal cotton and batting sandwich.  If you are crafty, you could easily sew one of these up as a Christmas gift (a lap quilt also would be nice and take even less time), or you could start one to keep your own toes toasty in the bitter months to come.  (This is particularly nice if you are participating in The Crunchy Chicken's Freeze Yer Buns Challenge.)

The Analysis

Fast:  In quilt-time, this one comes together in a jiffy.  Cut squares while you are watching TV at night, and then sew together in a few bursts of sewing.  I like to work on one of these while I'm writing, because it gives me a chance to turn away from the computer and think for a few minutes while I assemble a few squares.

Cheap:  I put my first fleece quilt together for the cost of $14 for two yards of backing fleece, plus whatever I spent on remnants.  With the remnant bin full (as it is right now with everyone using fleece to make gifts), you should be able to bring this project in under $30 with some smart shopping.

Good:  The fleece quilt is one of the (very) few things I actually like about winter.  It is so soft and warm, it follows me everywhere:  downstairs onto the couch during the day, and upstairs onto the bed at night.  I can't wait to finish another.
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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sage Noodle Soup

What is it about photographing soup that is so difficult?  Sometimes I contemplate having DH make a special bottom-lit soup bowl so you can see all the goodness in clear soups.

Anyway, I wasn't planning on posting this recipe until a couple of Facebook friends wanted a copy, and I realized it was a good one to share.  I also realized it was a good one to kick off (not so) Urban Hennery's Dark Days challenge.  This cool challenge asks us to commit to making one meal a week that is sustainable, organic, local, and ethical (SOLE) -- since sustainability is in the title of this blog, I expected it to be a snap!

However, it is hard to meet all these criteria.  For example, while I think cooking at home, making your own soup noodles, and using home-grown herbs to make a meal are all sustainable, I have to admit that I used packaged chicken broth.  This is probably a bad choice, because we all know how badly CAFO chickens are treated (that is, not typically ethically).  I have been trying to make more of my own stock, but right now I only have ham stock in the freezer (not what I wanted for this) and a box of chicken broth in the pantry begged to be used up (at least that is an ethical move -- not wasting food).  I have also had no luck finding local sources of any kind of flour or grain, let alone semolina, in spite of the fact that I'm willing (eager!  jonesing even!) to get a grain mill and grind my own.  (This is the kind of project that usually gets me in trouble.)

Anyway, I think it is a good first attempt, and I'll keep you posted on future endeavors; in the meantime, visit (not so) Urban Hennery at the link to the left.

Sage Noodle Soup

Sage Noodles:
1 cup regular flour
1 cup semolina flour
2 eggs  (local farm-raised with lovely orange yolks)
1 t. salt
sage to taste (I used about 1 T of the dried from the summer)
water to make thick paste

Turn out on floured board and kneed in the flour until no longer sticky.  See the basic method here. Roll with rolling pin until about 1/2 inch thick and cut into whatever size you like (although I like about an inch by an inch and a half for soup). Cook by boiling until they float in the rapidly boiling water. (I cook mine separately so the leftovers don't create bloated noodles by leaving them in the soup. This also keeps the starch that boils off the noodles out of the soup, so you have a clear soup.)

While this is going on, bring the following to a boil and then reduce to a simmer:

1 qt. chicken stock
1 onion, diced
1 pint frozen corn (that's what I had from the summer; it is good with carrots or peas too)
1 T. sage
1 T. marjoram (both spices dried from the garden; you can sub thyme or oregano for the marjoram if you like)
Optional--a few diced green chiles, for heat (about 1-2 T -- these were frozen from my garden)
salt and pepper

When corn is cooked and onions are translucent, place some of the noodles in each serving bowl and top with soup. Repeat as needed. (I usually double this recipe so I have leftovers. If you do, you only need to double the soup and not necessarily the noodles.)
The Analysis
Fast:  I made this batch of soup in under an hour, which is a long prep time for me but very enjoyable on a cold Sunday afternoon.  You can make the soup part in the crock pot if you prefer, which means that part can cook while you are at work.
Cheap:  By having an inexpensive local source of eggs and a lot of herbs and peppers at my disposal, this was not an expensive recipe.  (Full disclosure:  It was even cheaper because my mom gave me a few boxes of chicken broth she wasn't going to use by the expiration date.)  I think that making my own chicken stock in the future is a good next step to frugal soup.
Good:  The sage noodles really boost this soup from ordinary to special.  I am really working on natural healing endeavors right now, and there is a reason that chicken soup is called "Jewish Penicillin."  The onions, peppers, sage, and marjoram all have properties that will help out if you have a cold or flu. 
I think the next herb noodle project will be thyme noodles with fresh thyme (grown locally -- in my foyer!).  I can't wait to have some of those with some smoked cheddar on top!
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Monday, November 29, 2010

Apple Butter Bread

Welcome to our newest challenge:  Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays.

The holidays always present their own time, budget, and sanity challenges, and it is hard to continue to practice sustainable living skills when the garden is finished (for most of us), the weather is cold (ditto), and every message in the world seems to say that your life would get better and your holiday merrier if you just spent a lot of money.

To counter that, between now and New Year's I will be suggesting a few ways you can Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays.  Note that we aren't going to try to do everything; just a few things that keep your sustainable living principles in focus during this busy time. 

Today's idea is
Apple Butter Bread

I've adapted my recipe from the following inspiration:  Rose Manor

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter (local if you can)
1 cup turbinado sugar
1 egg (local if you can)
1 cup apple butter (local if you can)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2/3 cup evaporated milk (one 5 oz. can)

Combine ingredients and bake in two greased loaf pans at 350 for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  (You will note that I pared the original recipe down to one mixing bowl, and I have no negative effects from this time-saving move.)
I chose this recipe because I am in possession of some amazing local apple butter from the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, where my in-laws are regular volunteers.  A pint jar makes two batches, or four loaves.  For that matter, so does the large (13 oz) can of evaporated milk, with a few ounces left over that you have to put in your morning coffee so it doesn't go to waste.  (I'm always thinking about you, readers!)  Use local butter and eggs if you can, too, and you have a really local recipe.
The bread freezes beautifully, so for about an hour of effort you can double the batch, make four loaves, and have three in the freezer.  This means you have something already made to take out and serve to guests, take to the office pitch-in, or eat on Christmas morning. 
The Analysis
Fast:  For an hour's worth of effort, you can have a large chunk of your holiday baking done and have the results be sustainable to boot.
Cheap:  This depends heavily on the price of your ingredients; I got off pretty cheaply by having an inexpensive source of local eggs and the gift of apple butter.  Regardless, it won't be an expensive recipe, and you probably have most of the ingredients on hand.  (Many places have fruit butters for sale, although my preference, if you can, is to showcase a local product.)
Good:  This bread is yummy on its own and also good warm with butter.  I plan to try a pumpkin butter version in the future.
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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Fast, Cheap, and Good readers!

(The picture above has nothing to do with Thanksgiving; it is just a pretty shot of a bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco this summer.  I wanted to share it with you.)

Today is an oasis of quiet before the seasonal storms of merriment, religious significance, and outright consumerism our culture seems to put on the five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years.  Today, I'm not addressing any of that.

Rather, I wish you a holiday filled with joy; a day spent with family and friends (and don't forget, a holiday spent with a good book and a cozy fire also counts as time with friends!); and a celebration that makes you feel thankful for the blessings you have.

Let us all take this time to realize that, regardless of our circumstances or how tough the year may have been, we are all rich if we take the time to find and acknowledge our wealth.  Today is a day to take stock and gather strength before we head back out into the world to make our way.  We'll do it together, readers, and this holiday season and 2011 can be more sustainable, more independent, and more fulfilling than years before.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(And watch for the next post, when I will announce my new challenge:  Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays.)
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Sustainable Tool: The Santoku Knife

As an avid gardener, food preserver, and almost-vegetarian, I chop a lot of veggies.  And, I have amassed a lot of paring knives, ranging from expensive to dead cheap.  (In fact, my favorite paring knife is one that DH picked up at a big box retailer when he was out of town on business; I think he said it cost $3.)  On top of that, like most brides, I registered for the obligatory butcher block knife set when we married.  So, like most people of my age, I now have a drawer full of knives, each supposedly doing a different job, and each taking up space and having cost money.

All I needed to start was a santoku knife.

The santoku knife, as you see above, is a Japanese-inspired (the real ones are Japanese), relatively flat-bladed knife with these little divots along the side.  The divots are what is magic; they keep the knife from sticking to the food, and therefore you can slice much more easily through whatever you are cutting.  Although I gather it is primarily a vegetable knife, it is definitely my first choice for cutting cheese or meat these days.  In fact, I usually don't put this one in the dishwasher but instead just wash it off and put it back in the drawer.  (I know, I know: you shouldn't put knives in the dishwasher at all.  But I am usually too lazy not to, so I have to work with my own reality here.)

I wish I had known about the santoku knife earlier, before I started amassing a collection of knives for all occasion.  If you are reading this and just starting to amass kitchen tools, I recommend you acquire knives in the following order:
  1. A santoku knife.  Pick a medium sized one that fits comfortably in your hand.
  2. A paring knife.  There are still a few things too small to do with the medium santoku.
  3. A bread knife.  The serrated edge will cut bread, cake, and other such things.
  4. A set of (usually six) steak knives.  This gives you good meat knives for four people with two left over to use to cut meat in the kitchen.
That's it!  If you are just setting up housekeeping, you can certainly get by a long time on just the first two, then add the last two.  You only need specialty knives, like a meat cleaver, if you are doing a specialty job frequently.  For example, I would keep my strawberry knife with the little curved tip, because it does such a good job of hulling strawberries and cutting stem ends out of tomatoes with minimal waste.

The Analysis

Fast:  Your "fast" benefit here is that you will have a far easier time cutting things with a santoku, so you save time there.  You also will have an easier time finding it in a drawer if you limit your knives.

Cheap:  I got the above knife for about $7 at Meijer.  You can spend a ton, but you really don't need to. (Don't tell the foodies I said that!)  If you are starting out, you can probably get the first three knives for under $25 total; this is a good thing to put on your wish list too, if you have people wanting seasonal hints. 

Good:  Limiting clutter with a good-feeling tool is always a pleasure.
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Monday, November 15, 2010

The First Lime

By George, I did it.  I grew citrus in Ohio!

As you can see above, I just harvested the first key lime from my dwarf tree.  It is nestled next to an apple for perspective.

I have long joked that, one way or another, I was going to grow citrus in my back yard before I die.  This really only allowed for two options:  move to Key West (still an option, I hope), or find a way to grow a dwarf variety of a citrus tree.  (The third option, which is to single-handedly bring on enough global warming to change the climate here, I deemed unaccepatable and irresponsible for a number of reasons.)

Last year, I bought a dwarf key lime tree from Stark Brothers.  The dwarf variety is a full-sized lime tree grafted onto dwarf root stock; you can see a notch in the trunk where the graft occurred.  The tree will grow in a small planter, but you have to be careful not to bury that notch, or you will get a full-sized tree.  I planted mine in a 12" planter filled with compost, and this spring she bloomed and ultimately set limes.  The tree lives happily outside during summer, and it moves inside to the south-facing dining room window in winter.

This is the first lime, which I photographed for you (you are always on my mind, dear reader!) and then proceeded to make a mojito.  The flavor of this fresh little lime, untainted by pesticides or herbicides and oh-so-fresh, was so complex I was able to leave the lime juice out of the recipe.  It was absolute bliss, and it came from a lime that I grew in our own little "micro-orchard."

The Analysis

Fast:  Limes take several months to mature, from blossom to ripe fruit, but you don't really have to do anything to them in this period.  I like to stop by and periodically encourage the tree to produce mojito fodder, but that is an optional step.

Cheap:  It will take many limes to offset the price of this tree, but if I plan to use these mostly for mojitos (and if you doubt that, you haven't been reading this blog for long), I will probably realize savings pretty quickly.  By using these limes, I will not be buying the expensive bottled lime juice, and I won't be buying a bag of key limes, only to use two of them and see the others go bad.  Since I am growing my own mojito mint, I'm really down to just buying rum and club soda, and making simple syrup.

Good:  A mojito is a luxury, and an occasional one at that.  But sustainability isn't just about finding ways to get your necessities in a resource-friendly manner.  Rather, it is about using sustainable principles to achieve both necessities and luxuries.  And what could be more luxurious than coming home from the second-shift job on a cold winter day and seeing a ripe lime on the tree, just begging to become a little taste of the tropics?
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Key West Sunroom/Greenhouse

For a while, I've been alluding to the addition of a sunroom to our house. This sunroom/greenhouse is affectionately known around here as the "Key West Room" because of our use of the island as inspiration for the decor. I have promised you a post on the project, and here it is! I wanted to talk you through our decision-making process for this major home project, and hopefully you can decide what will and will not work for you in a similar situation.

First, let me acknowledge that adding onto a house is not necessarily economical; every estimate I have seen indicates that home owners will only rarely recover 100% of the cost of an addition or renovation in the resale of their house, and I'm sure that is true in this housing market. However, we opted to add this sunroom because it would extend the true living area of our home, which is the kitchen, family room, patio (now sunroom) and gardens. We opted for a sunroom instead of, perhaps, a pool or a media room, because it would be a highly functional space. We also opted to wait until we had met certain financial goals we had, and until we had the money in hand, so that is why we have owned this house for ten years without adding a sunroom that we knew we wanted.

The footprint of the new room already existed on the house. The back patio was already covered by existing roofline, and the concrete pad of the patio nestled under the roof in an "L" of the house. Therefore, we were literally two walls short of a room. The concrete pad even already had a footer in place, so, by keeping to this existing footprint instead of extending out into the gardens (heaven forbid!), we had the most economical option possible.

We chose a patio room company that had two options: a three-season room wall system and a four-season system. The four season option was sturdier and better insulated, so we opted to go that direction. The room could easily be heated with a space heater, or baseboard heat could be installed if we wish. However, we don't intend for the room to be additional winter living space, so we have not gone that route.

We chose walls that were part slider and part transom window. The transoms allow us to better control air flow, and they should allow us to use the room effectively on rainy days. We have already enjoyed using the room on a cool day with just one or two transoms open for ventilation.

The walls are a unique configuration designed by my husband. Each wall has a sliding panel and a fixed panel. DH requested that the fixed panels include the UV protection and the sliding panels allow full spectrum light. That way, in the cool months, we can position our indoor crops and seedlings in front of the full spectrum windows and use the space as a greenhouse; these windows will also allow for more passive solar heat to come in to warm the space. During the summer, when the sliders are back behind the fixed panels, the UV protection of those panels will keep the room a bit cooler. A ceiling fan we already installed will also help with ventilation.

So far, the room is functioning just as we intended. In lieu of a "Fast, Cheap, and Good" analysis, let me offer the following benefits from the addition of the room:
  • Because of the unique combination of window glass detailed above, we have extended the growing season considerably. As I write this in mid-November, we have a large raised planter box full of lettuce growing happily, along with some mojito mint and some rosemary. I expect to be able to start my seedlings earlier in the spring and to start more of them as well, so I should get a jump on the season and be able to depend less on purchased garden plants. (Starting a whole garden worth of seedlings was tricky when I was trying to do it all under grow bulbs and south-facing windows.)
  • The room is acting now as a heat collector and a really good buffer between the family room doors and the outdoor temps. I have noticed the family room, to which this room connects, being warmer and cozier.  On some warm days, we have opened the interior door and allowed the sunroom to heat the family room.
  • We will be adding a removable clothes line to run diagonally across the space, so I will still be able to hang sheets and other large items to air dry. They should dry more quickly than in my lower level laundry room on drying racks.  This will save a little money by allowing me to avoid running the drier.
  • By choosing the four season wall option, we qualified for a tax credit. This lowered the price of the room dramatically. (The credit should be just shy of 20% of the room's cost.)
  • I also paid for the room on my LL Bean Visa card and earned reward certificates; with these, I was able to get a set of flannel sheets for our bed (retail price $65.90) for only $5.90. So, that will keep us warm this year as well.
  • Finally, we joke around here about the savings realized by not having to buy antidepressants in the winter.  Truly, for us, having a sheltered space to take in more winter sunlight and garden plants makes a huge difference in mood and quality of life.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cheap and Easy Spoonbread

(Apologies for the picture quality; it looked fine in the preview screen before we scarfed down our picture subject!)

Heading deep into fall, it is time to start eating some of those preserved goods that we worked so hard for this summer, and a great use for frozen corn is spoonbread, a kind of soft cornbread that includes whole kernel corn.

This quick recipe makes use of Jiffy cornbread mix.  I like Jiffy mixes as the base for quick recipes; they are always cheap, and the ingredient list is generally pretty healthy and pretty much in line with what you would use if you made the recipe from scratch.  This spoonbread requires:

Cheap and Easy Spoonbread
1 box Jiffy cornbread mix ($0.47 on sale)
1 egg ($0.13, farm-raised; score!)
6 oz. milk ($0.32, local and expensive, but worth it)
1 pint frozen corn (from freezer)

Mix ingredients and spread in an 8x8 greased baking dish.  Bake 25-30 minutes; longer baking creates a more bread-like product, while the lower time leaves it soft.

This is a great side dish for a meal, or a really good light meal.  Eat the leftovers heated up in the mornings with butter and honey or maple syrup, or wait for lunch and add cheese (and maybe some diced chiles if you have them in the freezer and feel like some heat).

The Analysis

Fast:  One bowl, 4 ingredients, and about 32 minutes of prep including the baking time.

Cheap:  $0.82 for about 4 servings; even if you add ingredients to make a meal, it is still well within budget. 

Good:  Yummy and healthy, this is a great light meal or snack.
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Friday, November 5, 2010

2010 Garden Review

The main gardens have been taken down, and we have spread as much mulch as we have had time for to date (we use pine needles or shredded leaves, depending on supply and location).  So, I thought it would be fun to wrap up the week with a success/failure analysis of the 2010 gardening year. 

Note:  I am gardening in southwest Ohio, which is on the border of zones 5 and 6.  I have always counted myself a zone 5 person, but after a couple of years of extended seasons, I'm going to start following zone 6 Almanac dates next year.

The Disappointments:
  • The rabbits were killing me this year.  At one point, I nicknamed two of them Roundup and Napalm, so good were they at removing vegetation.  I watched the rabbits eat every bean seedling from two different plantings this year, so no beans.  They also wiped out an entire dill crop.  Sadly, they also ate most of three plantings of carrots, so that we have had only a few homegrown carrots this year and about a pint to freeze.
  • Erratic weather made the tomatoes behave badly.  I loved the big Oxheart tomatoes that weighed in at between one and two pounds each, but I didn't get as many all at once as I wanted, so I didn't get to can as much as I usually do.  The best performing tomato plant out of the 30 or so in the garden was, as always, a volunteer that came up and gave me sweet, juicy, golf ball-sized tomatoes for weeks.
  • When I wasn't cursing rabbits, I was cursing zucchini.  I got beautiful large plants that flowered for weeks.  Unfortunately, all the flowers were male, so I couldn't even go out there and help them pollinate.  I ended the year without a single zucchini.  Next year, we plan to put the zucchini in a new bed that has less rich soil than the main garden.
  • The birds took every single blueberry from the first cropping year of our bushes. The lesson:  the day you think, "oh, those will be ready tomorrow," either go ahead and pick them, or make sure you have impenetrable bird netting.
The Triumphs
  • This was definitely the year for herbs, starting in early spring.  The cilantro reseeded itself so that I had an abundance by April.  The sage also came back and threatened to take over the herb bed (as you see above).  Basil (particularly common and Thai) also did very well.
  • My experiment growing feverfew to help my headaches was a roaring success.  The feverfew cut my headaches so dramatically that my husband commented that the entire cost of the new herb bed in which it grows was completely worth it just in quality of life improvement.  I agree.  (As always, if you are contemplating trying a medicinal herb, don't do it solely because you are reading this or any other blog.  Do your own research; it is your body.)
  • For that matter, the front herb bed was a huge success.  I saw lots of people slow down and look, and when I was out with it I waved and said "hi" to more neighbors than any other year.
  • Potatoes were a huge success.  I cellared four pounds of them!  Yeah, I know, laugh it up, but I only put a few seed potatoes in the ground to see what would happen, and I would say I got an eight-fold yield back.  Plus, I discovered how much I love to dig potatoes; it is like an Easter egg hunt!  Next year, there will be many more potatoes. 
  • This was also the first year for garlic, and it was amazingly successful.  Out of a narrow, rocky bed that was never good for anything else, I got 33 head of garlic to cellar.  The heads are a little on the small side, but the flavor is amazing.
  • This was an expanded year for leeks, and they may be one of my new favorite veggies.  Although my leeks didn't get super-fat like the ones you see already trimmed and wrapped in plastic and foam (yuck!) in the grocery, they were crisp, juicy, and mild.  We had them in soups, casseroles, and on pizza for about three whole months.
  • The cucumber trellis continues to be the only way to grow cukes.  For the second straight year, I grew so many that not only did I put up some pickles, I also had cucumbers for lunch and dinner literally every single day for over two months.  Before the fence, my harvest season would max out at six weeks.  This year, I finally relented and sent the last of the cukes to work with my husband, since we had made as many pickles as we would use, and my digestion was in full revolt from eating that much water and fiber for that long.  (OK, gardener's TMI; sorry.)
What Continues
  • In the new sunroom (I owe you all a post on that project), we still have baby Simpson lettuce and romaine growing to extend our veggie season.  I just used some last night to add some freshness to a veggie sauce.  (Bonus tip:  throw some coarsely chopped greens into a tomato sauce at the last minute before serving.  It adds crispness and vitamins.)
  • Also in the sunroom is mojito mint and rosemary, both doing fine at the moment.
  • In the dining room, cozied up to the south-facing window, we have the "orchard" -- the key lime and nectarine trees.  The key lime is covered with little limes, and I expect we will be harvesting some before Christmas.
  • Finally, I have a big planter of thyme in my foyer (where we dragged it before the first frost).  It may wind up with the "orchard," but either way it seems to be healthy.
Growing your own vegetables:  Fast, Cheap, and Good!
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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reuseable Swiffer Cloths

The good folks at Swiffer were really onto something when they created the Swiffer mop.  Sure, there had been other mops that could be used to dust or scrub, depending on the amount of liquid you used, but the Swiffer mop had one feature I'd never encountered before:  that universal joint that attaches the handle to the head.  It gives me the most delicious feeling of "hey, I'm mopping the floors really fast!"  (I know, I need to get out more.)  It also reaches into corners and around round things in ways you wouldn't expect from a blocky rectangle head.  You can see above that I've worn mine until the handle is about to snap.

What I don't love is the disposable cloths that you use once, throw out, and buy again and again.  Part of me wants to make a high-minded argument to you that it is not environmentally responsible to keep buying cardboard boxes and plastic tubs full of dust cloths and floor washing cloths, only to send them to a landfill about 2 minutes after you use it.  But the whiner in me was just really tired of paying for the things, lugging them home, and then lugging them to the curb later (OK, hubby does that last part, but you get the point).

Enter the fleece substitute.  As you may know if you have been with me for a while, I can solve anything with fleece.  It is the duct tape of fabrics, and right now there are many remnants of fleece -- bolt ends and miscuts -- in a bin at your local fabric store.  Go get a remnant for less than you would pay for a single box of Swiffer refills (I regularly get about a yard for less than $2 in the remnant bin), and cut into about 6" by 10" rectangles.  They fit onto the head beautifully.  Spray with whatever cleaning fluid you like, or none; the fleece does a great job of dusting.  Then just wash them with sheets, towels, jeans, or whatever heavy-duty load you have.

(As an aside, as an instructor of advertising history, I am fascinated by the number of products that are currently sold with the message "use once and throw the dirt/germs away."  It will be interesting to see how this evolves as our societal germ-phobia comes up against the increasing interest in sustainability.)

The Analysis

Fast:  Not counting time for a trip to the fabric store (because that's pleasure, right?), a stack of these took about 10 minutes to cut.  I wasn't particularly exact about it.

Cheap:  I cut these before I started tracking my fleece prices for this blog, but I'm pretty confident I got a stack of these made for less than $1.  I still purchase the disposable wet cloths occasionally, but I have purchased one box this calender year, compared to probably one every six weeks plus a nearly comparable amount of the disposable dusting cloths before I started making these reusable ones.  Let's do the math on this one:

Before reusable cloths:
9 boxes wet cloths per year @ $5.09 ea. (Costco) = $45.81
6 boxes dry cloths per year @ $4.42 ea. (Amazon) = $26.52
Total = $72.33

With reusable cloths:
Stack of fleece reusable cloths = $1
1 box wet cloths = $5.09
Total = $6.09

Savings:  $66.24 for about 10 minutes of work

Good:  They work just as well as the commercial variety, and to date (since February) I have thrown away only one.  (And that one was just nasty from a one-off cleaning disaster.)
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sustainable Bookshelf: Country Wisdom & Know-How

Periodically, I like to feature a book that I recommend you buy for your bookshelf.  My criteria for the Sustainable Bookshelf picks are:  1) they are worth buying to use as a reference day-to-day or at least in a given season, and 2) they would be a book that you would wish you had if suddenly you were living a totally sustainable, independent life and for some reason couldn't buy or borrow books or surf the Internet. 

Today's selection for the Sustainable Bookshelf is Country Wisdom and Know-How: Everything You Need to Know to Live Off the Land.  While that subtitle may be a little optimistic, this certainly is the go-to reference for some of those oddball intermediate-to-advanced sustainable living questions you may have.

Published in about 6 point font (so get out your reading glasses), this no-frills book has a wealth of information on gardening, farming, raising livestock, butchering, cooking, building, making medicines, carpentry, laying tile, and a few arts and crafts for your "free time."  I have gone to it time and again to answer questions that range from academic to practical, like:
  • What is the difference between a tincture and an infusion, and how do I make them?
  • What is a new recipe for [pick your favorite crop]?
  • How do you skin a rabbit?  (OK, give me a break:  I saw three of them mowing down my beans that day, and I figured it didn't hurt to know one's options....)
One caveat for this book (other than the eye-punishing font):  this is not a book you sit down and read cover-to-cover for enjoyment, and it isn't your first sustainable living book.  If you are brand-new at gardening, for example, you probably won't be able to start on the first page of the gardening section and easily work your way through your steps in chronological order.  However, if you have specific sustainabililty questions and wish to learn the answer, this is the encyclopedia for you.  I'm glad to have it around as a physical reference I know I can depend on to answer my questions.  And with a few tips and tricks from the masters, I'm able to build a better bean fence.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cream of Leek Soup

Today's recipe, for cream of leek soup, is not only a hearty soup for a chilly day; it is also an exercise in sustainable cooking.  For sustainable cooking, it is less important to collect a ton of recipes, and more important to learn basic formulae that will allow you to use up what you have.

This recipe is the same one we used for Cheesy Potato Soup.  If you analyze it, you will see that the basic formula for this soup is:

3 cups stock
1 cup cream, half and half, or whole milk
2 cups cheese

In this case, I simmered an onion and two cloves garlic in butter until translucent, then added 3 cups of ham stock I made this Easter and the last of the leeks from the garden (about 6 small ones, but you would do fine with 2 large ones).  I added a cup of half and half that we needed to use up, along with 2 cups of shredded Swiss and Gruyere I bought from Trader Joe's (the only thing I didn't already have that was waiting to be used up from pantry, fridge, garden, or cellar).  Since the flavor of the onions, garlic, and leeks was strong, the only spice I added was cracked black pepper.

You can spin this recipe several ways.  I can see a pepper cheese soup coming about with green peppers, spicy chiles, and cheddar cheese.  You could try a cream of tomato with mozzarella, Parmesan, and tomatoes (you may want to blend that one, or not if you like a chunky tomato soup).  I have made a cream of potato and carrot as well.  If you have a "failure" or a combo you don't like, it isn't a tragedy.  However, you will probably like what you cook as long as you like the ingredients you put in.

Sustainable cooking is about using what you have on hand, and the quickest way to do that is memorizing not recipes but formulae.  What variations on this theme sound good to you?

The Analysis

Fast:  This recipe regularly comes in under 45 minutes. 

Cheap:  Knowing that I had items in cellar, fridge, and garden to use up, I only bought cheese on my last TJ's visit to tie this all together.  So, I spent less than $4 for two lunches and two dinners.

Good:  I am a big fan of soup as budget saver and a body-warmer.

The Fall Thermostat Challenge -- CLOSED!
OK, I officially gave up on November 1.  With day temps in the 50s and nights around freezing, there is no longer any way I can heat the house with passive solar.  I could probably squeeze a few more hours by building a fire and spending my days in front of it, but work prohibits that approach.

Since Labor Day, I racked up 858 hours without whole-house AC or heat, a total of 35.75 days, or just over five weeks.  With the 49 days I saved this spring, I have avoided whole-house climate control for 12 weeks this year!  How cool (or warm) is that?!?

Why do this at all?  In addition to the fact that heat and AC cost money (and therefore are annoying to pay for, in my book), I think it is a good exercise to make us remember that these utilities are resources we use to make ourselves comfortable.  We don't need to live in bubbles that never deviate from 72 degrees; the heat and AC are luxuries that help keep us from freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, but they are not essential during relatively large chunks of the year, even to keep comfortable.

Stay tuned for my next challenge, and feel free to post ideas if you have them!
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Monday, November 1, 2010

Sustainable Tool: The Broadfork

"Oh, I knew I never should have let you read those Little House on the Prairie books," my mom laughed when I posted this picture to Facebook.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the FC&G's household's new broadfork.

A broadfork is kind of a pitchfork on steroids.  What is difficult to see in this photo is that those tines -- which appear sturdy enough to last a lifetime, requiring only occasional changes of handle (although those feel pretty sturdy too) -- are curved, just like a pitchfork.  They are also much longer than those on a pitchfork. 

The beauty of this is that one can jam those tines in the ground, then pull back on the handles and not so much flip the soil as loosen it.  This is instrumental since we have started "lasagna gardening," a strategy in which you do not plow/rototill your soil so that you keep the various strata intact instead of destroying the work your beneficial flora and fauna have done to your soil over the year.  This should keep down the presence of annoying insects and diseases. 

You do this by continually mulching the soil, allowing the mulch to compost in situ.  I like to think of lasagna gardening as the "I hate to rototill" method.  If you keep mulching through summer, it theoretically keeps the weeds under control too, although I didn't succeed in doing that effectively this year.  However, the weeds I did get were much easier to pull, so this might be the "I hate to weed" method too.

In any event, if you practice lasagna gardening, you need to loosen that soil periodically, and this is what the broadfork is for.  It is fun to use, although my husband is more effective at it than me.  It is a great workout, as you might imagine, and it is certainly going to outlast a gas-powered rototiller, not to mention have a much smaller impact on the environment.  I love my broadfork, and I think Pa Ingalls might have been proud.

The Analysis

Fast:  In early experiments with the broadfork this fall, I suspect that it will do a quicker job of "tilling" the garden than would a rototiller, once you factor in the inevitable spring ritual of calling every hardware store in the area, going to rent one, trying to make sure you have the proper fuel, letting it jerk you around the garden for a couple of hours, and then cleaning it for the return.

Cheap:  This was $99 plus shipping from Lehman's, my favorite store for sustainable stuff.  The shipping was pretty expensive (about $25) as you might expect.  However, we have a theory around here that sometimes it is better to invest in a really good tool rather than simply having the money in the bank.  Preparedness and the ability to do a good job are a kind of savings, too.

Good:  Early indications are that this will be better for the health of my soil and for the size of my waistline.  Sustainable tool win!
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Friday, October 29, 2010

FC&G Featured on Thrift Culture Now

Just a note to let you know that Fast, Cheap, and Good is the Thrifty Blogger of the Week for the week of November 1!  I am so proud of this honor; you can see the article here:

For those of you who have made your way here via Thrift Culture Now, welcome!  I'm planning a special week for you, with a post every day (instead of my usual 2-3 per week pace) so you can get a good feel for what I do here.  I hope you'll bookmark the site, comment on what you think and what you'd like to see, and, most important, choose a sustainable project or two to try yourself.   Let's make our lives better, less expensive, and less rushed, while living more sustainably, one project at a time.
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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fried Cod with Hushpuppie-Inspired Crust

Today's recipe is one I sort of stumbled upon this weekend, when I needed to make dinner and just grabbed the nearest things from freezer, pantry, and garden.  It was pretty inexpensive that way, and it is furthering my aim to make it cheaper yet.  Read on....

To start, I fried up some Alaskan cod pieces from Trader Joe's.  (I didn't keep the receipt on this one, but I remember them being fairly inexpensive for what turned out to be two dinners and two lunches.)  I dipped the cod in farm egg (which hubby scored a deal on at $1.50 a dozen!) and then dredged it in a mix of corn meal and Old Bay seasoning.  After frying in olive oil, I had a crust that tasted very much of hush puppy.

The tartar sauce that you see above is mostly homemade, and dead easy:  just mix half mayonnaise with half cucumber relish.  I put up my own relish last year, so I know the quality of that product.  Go ahead and use the full-fat mayo; the light often has HFCS in it (depending on brand) to improve taste and mouthfeel in the absence of the fat. 

Finally, I put my creation on a bed of greens from the last of the garden.  Here I have baby romaine and Simpson lettuce grown in the greenhouse/sunroom, along with mojito mint from the sunroom and the last of the basil from the garden, plus some tomatoes ripened in the house.  Let me tell you, I am in love with the taste of a little mint with my fish.  That addition made this dish light, fresh, and absolutely yummy. 

The Analysis

Fast:  As with most of my meals, this was on the table in about 30-45 minutes. 

Cheap:  The greens and tomatoes were all mine, so those were basically free, as was the cucumber relish for the tartar sauce.  My goal:  I want to learn to fish, because then I could occasionally bring in the protein for yummy dishes like this.

Good:  This is actually one of my favorite fish recipes to date, and I stumbled on it because I needed to put something on the table that night.  Score!
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