Monday, August 30, 2010

Yoga Socks

First of all, my apologies.  This is one of my feet.  Yes, I desperately need a pedicure and a paraffin dip.  This is what gardeners' feet look like at the end of the season.  [Hangs head.]

OK, now, on to the project:  this is one of my new pair of yoga socks. 

I mentioned this spring that I was teaching myself to knit.  Let me tell you a little bit about myself as a crafter.  I am not someone who uses my crafts to challenge myself.  When I embroider, I do not want to do it on 24-count Aida cloth in 37 very similar shades of green.  I will not be knitting Fair Isle patterns.  I will not be crocheting from patterns at all.

I craft to soothe myself, primarily, which means that the project must be 1) repetitive and 2) practical.  I embraced red work embroidery because I don't need to pay enough attention to change colors.  I like to crochet a rib stitch that I use on almost everything.  And with knitting, I like repetitive rectangles that I can create while watching TV, reading, walking around the house (yes, my new skill), or sitting at my computer thinking about a thorny work problem.

Yoga socks are the perfect project for this.  All you do is create a rectangle from sock weight yarn (although I have had good luck with worsted weight cotton as well), sew up the area under the arch and behind the leg, and wear.  They are ideal for yoga class, when you need contact with the floor for traction but still want to keep warm.  I have gotten rave reviews wearing them to belly dance class, especially from the American Tribal fans who love hand-crafted pom-poms, tassels, and other costume decorations.  And, they are great in the fall and spring when you really want to go barefoot but need a little something to keep cozy. 

(Note:  I write knit and crochet patterns in plain English, too.)
Cast on 50 stitches of sock weight yarn on size 3 needles.  This fits my size 6 foot well; you may need to add or subtract accordingly.

Knit to your heart's content, or until you have the length you desire.  Remember, you are going from the base of the ball of your foot to a bit up your calf, so this will be shorter than a standard sock.  I just knitted; you can add cables or intarsia designs or anything else you want.  Heck, this can be your swatch to test the gauge for your next sweater, if you like.

Bind off.  Turn wrong side out to sew.  Sew with mattress stitch about three inches of sock to form a tube; this will go under your arch.  Leave a three inch gap, and sew the rest up.

Turn right side out and go hit the mat!

The Analysis

Fast:  These are not a sit-down-and-do-them project.  These are the kind of thing you knit in spare moments while you are waiting for your family to be ready to leave the house, while you are watching TV, while you are standing at the bus stop with your kids or are on the train on the way to work.  These thrive on stolen moments.

Cheap:  These take less than a skein of sock yarn, so use up your yarn ends this way.  And don't feel limited to matching; what would be more fun than a crazy pair of yoga socks made of leftovers?  That means free!

Good:  These are a blessing in cold yoga studios or on cold dance floors.  They also make that transition from fall to winter a little easier to take.
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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fall Thermostat Challenge

I have a love/hate relationship with my house thermostat and all the heating and cooling equipment it runs.  On the one hand, hey, I've read The Long Winter; I know that without central heat I could be spending my winters sitting around the fireplace wrapped in quilts, praying for an early spring.  On the other hand, every time the heat or air kicks on, part of me thinks I should get back to work because there's a bill a-comin'.

Avoiding running either heat or air was easy this spring.  One day, it was warm enough to make it through with just passive solar heat and a nice pair of fleece socks, and I turned off the heat and never looked back.  Even on a couple of really chilly mornings, I felt like I could bring on summer just by refusing to turn the heat back on, and I opened the west and south facing blinds, put on a sweater, and said that summer was here whether the outside temperature knew it or not.  I made it a total of 49 days (7 whole weeks) running neither heat nor air.

Fall is trickier for me.  In the first place, seasonal allergies make it difficult for me to throw open the windows while everything alive is busy throwing pollen, ragweed, and mold into the air.  Secondly, I have no desire to mentally rush the onset of winter and sweat my way through the last few weeks of summer, waiting through the end of air conditioning season and going straight to a delayed heating year.  Finally, and this is one of those individual things that makes you crazy about your own house, but our master bedroom is the great heat collector of the whole house.  This is great in January, when a load of laundry in the laundry room downstairs can take the chill off the bedroom for several hours, in spite of the fact that my night time house heat is set at 55 degrees.  On the other hand, this means that we supplement that room with a window air conditioner in the summer, because that extra 5-10 degrees makes a huge difference in that room in July.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that today, I turned the whole-house AC off for an unseasonably cool day, and I don't plan to turn it back on until night (when I need to cool that bedroom).  So, here is my challenge for myself (and you, if you'd like to play along):

The Fast, Cheap, and Good Fall Thermostat Challenge
1.  Starting Monday, September 6 (Labor Day), put away your white shoes and get out a sticky note.  We are going to track the amount of time we can keep both the AC and the heat off, until the day that we can stand it no more and turn the heat on until spring.

2.  Tallies will be kept in hours.  I will probably be able to turn off the AC for 10-12 hours at a time during the day and live off the cool air that accumulated at night.  You may be able to stand turning off the AC at night and opening a window.  It is all up to your comfort threshhold and your allergies.  Remember, we're saving money and resources here, but not at the expense of our health and sanity!

3.  Single room electric heating and cooling devices, like fans, window air conditioners, and space heaters, are allowed, but only in one room at a time.  (That is, no fair turning off the whole-house air and turning on 5 window units.)  Non-electric options, like open windows and fireplaces, are strongly encouraged, as are passive re-captures of heat like venting a drier indoors or catching up on your baking.

4.  I will keep you updated with periodic tallies of my hours, and I encourage you to do the same, either in the comments section of this blog or the comment section on the Hilltop Communications page on Facebook.  I will let you know when I give up and turn on the heat for good.  For those of you in more southern parts of the country, I expect you will be able to post when you turn the AC back on early next spring.  I love stories like this, so share them.  Northerners, I know you won't have as long a heat-free season, but that is OK.  We are all doing what we can.

Are you ready?  Let's give those thermostats -- and wallets -- a well-deserved fall vacation!
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Monday, August 23, 2010

August Pasta

There it is:  Still in the pan, with steam curling off.  August Pasta.  AKA, the cheapest meal of the year.

Even though this is not a gardening year for the record books, we still have an abundance of garden produce this August.  So, every August, I cook a meal or two that relies heavily if not solely on veggies.

What you see above is:

6-8 medium tomatoes, chopped (from garden)
2 medium leeks, chopped (from garden)
1 handful basil, chopped (from garden)
(You can also add peppers, zucchini, oregano, or pretty much whatever is ripe.)

Saute these until the flavor blends.  Mix with:

1/2 package angle hair pasta (Sam's Club, 89 cents per package)

Add sea salt and ground pepper to taste.  Serve.

That's right.  This meal comes in at 45 cents for the batch (remember, I paid for garden seeds and plants from the grocery budget in February, so the produce is a "pantry supply), or 15 cents for each of 3 big servings.  And, if you have lots of veggies, I can assure you that August Pizza and August Rice are equally yummy.

The Analysis

Fast:  The pasta version of this is the fastest, with just less than 20 minutes of prep and cook time.

Cheap:  45 cents a batch!  15 cents a serving!  Now that's what I'm talkin' about!

Good:  With produce this fresh, you don't really need oil or cheese to pump up the flavors.  It is low in calories but quite filling, and did I mention it is 15 cents a serving?
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Thursday, August 19, 2010

WWII Chili Sauce

August is undeniably tomato month.  Although I think the heat and variable amount of rain has crippled our crop a bit, there are still enough tomatoes to put up a few of our favorites.  One of these is affectionately known as "WWII Chili Sauce."

This recipe derives its name from its origins in Grandma's Wartime Kitchen by Joanne Lamb Hayes.  Although Hayes has devised a way to make this sauce in about a half hour of cook time, I am going against the "Fast" of "Fast, Cheap, and Good" by reverse engineering it to cook longer, making for a thicker sauce and deeper flavors.  It is worth the investment of time.

DH loves this sauce.  On a cold winter night that he is cooking for himself, I can assist by thawing a pound of hamburger and letting him use this like sloppy joe sauce.  It makes a great topping for bread, noodles, or potatoes, and it makes about 4-5 servings of sloppy joe-style chili.

3 lb tomatoes
½ cup chopped onions
½ cup chopped pepper (I uses salsa delight and bananarama chiles, but the recipe calls for green bell peppers)
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
½ t. salt
¼ t. ground cloves
¼ t. ground allspice

Wash and stem the tomatoes, cutting into reasonable size chunks and cutting out bad spots. Place in large pot and cook until the tomatoes are juicy and boiling. The longer you cook, the more juice and pulp will be available to you.

When the tomatoes have released their juice, pass the juice and pulp through a ricer (also called a food mill) to remove the skins and seeds. Return the tomato pulp to the pan, and add the remaining ingredients. Return to a gentle boil, and cook until the sauce is as thick as you would like – depending on the tomatoes you have used and the size of the batch, this could take up to 2 hours.

Refrigerate for use within a week, or spoon into a sterilized pint jar, leaving 1/4-1/2 inch headspace, and process in a water bath canner for 20 minutes (25 minutes for quarts). Makes one pint.

The Analysis

Fast:  Well, I did make the cook time longer on this by virtue of cooking the pulp down, sending it through a ricer, and then cooking again.  I think it is worth it.

Cheap:  Depending on your garden, this could be quite cheap indeed, with the cost coming mostly or entirely from pantry supplies (like cider vinegar and spices).  I always have to buy onion, which are 75 cents each  at my farmer's market.  I grow tomatoes and peppers.

Good:  Once you've had this, I promise the sticky, HFCS-laden sloppy joe sauce in a can will hold very little appeal for you.  And, as a bonus, the house smells wonderful while you cook it!

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Knowing How

My husband has a great story about an engineer who is called into the factory late one night to diagnose a problem with a machine that has stopped working, halting production.  (After observing my husband's work schedule, I might add that I am sure that it was late on a holiday or vacation evening, and that the engineer in question probably had to leave his wife to do this.)

He arrives and goes straight to the machine.  He looks at the workings, takes a few readings, asks a few questions of the operators and the skilled trades folks, and then takes out a Sharpie and makes a big black X on the side. 

"Open her up right there, and you'll see the problem," he says, giving directions about the part that needs replaced.  He then packs up and, five minutes after he arrives, departs.

The next day he sends a bill for $5,000, and the client is irate.  "What is this all about?  You were only here for five minutes and made an X!  I can't send this in for payment without some explanation of why it costs so much," the supervisor fumes.  So the engineer writes a revised bill and sends it right over:

Making an X:  $5
Knowing Where:  $4995

So, I hope you will see the connection when I point out that today's photo is of our air conditioning unit, which is humming along and cooling the house just fine, thank you.  That wasn't true a few days ago, when it stopped working in 95 degree heat.  Because my husband is, in fact, an electrical engineer, he went out, took a few readings, and diagnosed that we needed a new capacitor, which he ordered and installed.  Total cost, $37.  I'm sure I would have paid the HVAC service I use at least ten times that for the service call.

This is not to criticize the HVAC service or any other.  (In fact, my HVAC guys have talked me through a few crises gratis before coming out and charging me, so kudos to them.)  Instead, it is to point out that when you see the service charge on a bill, you are seeing the cost of "knowing how."  And this should give you a good idea of the skills you may want to acquire.  You don't have to learn electrical engineering, but can you learn enough basic wiring to install a new light fixture?  (Obligatory warning:  when messing with electricity, make sure you are doing it right.)  Can you learn to change the oil in your car?  Can you learn to make a meal so yummy you don't want to go out to eat as often?  Can you sew on a button and mend a hem?  Can you care for your body and reduce your health care costs?

Take a look at that service fee on your next bill, and see what skills you need to learn.  Can you be the one that "knows how?"
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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sustainable Tool: Mortar and Pestle

A few years ago, Hurricane Ike barreled up from the Gulf and continued north until it hit Ohio as a Category 1 Hurricane.  Most of you probably laugh at the idea of a category one storm being memorable, but let me assure you that a mostly-landlocked Midwestern state has done very little hurricane preparedness work.  We were left without power for nearly a week, and that event kicked off my interest in finding tools that can be used off the grid.

One of my favorite such tools, although it wouldn't have done much in a temporary power outage like Ike caused, is the mortar and pestle.  You may recognize the iconic shape from apothecary signs at your local pharmacy, and that is no accident.  A mortar and pestle is the original grinding tool.  It can be used to grind and compound (mix) medications, hence the link with pharmacies, but it has traditionally been used to grind herbs and spices and crack grains and nuts.  I use mine several times a week during food preservation season for just these tasks.

I can't tell you the pleasure that this tool brings me.  It allows me to quickly and easily grind, powder, and crush herbs, seeds, and herbal medications in a way that has been done for millennia.  Think of that -- you are doing a task that someone could have done before electricity, before the railroad, even before writing.  This tool is so basic, just picking one up links you with history.  (That kind of gives me a little chill, but I am a history nerd that way.)

It also does the job well.  I recommend you buy one made of stone; mine is marble, but there are granite ones available.  Get one with a smooth interior, although it doesn't have to be polished.  Place a little of what you are grinding inside, then take the pestle (which I just learned derives from the Latin for "pounder") and start by pressing against your substance, then working up to something slightly more intense than tapping.  You don't want to imitate the Flintstones and pick the pestle up and slam it against the mortar. 

Also, with a mortar and pestle, you can forget about the conventional foodie recommendation to buy a separate coffee grinder and use it just for grinding spices, so the spice flavor doesn't contaminate the coffee.  With a stone mortar and pestle, you can grind any flavorful substance and then wipe it clean with no flavor residue.  You may want to use a drop or two of dish washing liquid if you just worked with hot peppers, but otherwise you can clean your mortar and pestle with water and a clean towel.

I have a possibly unreasonable love for this tool.  With proper care, it will be with me for a lifetime.  Maybe in a millennium, someone else will think of me while they preserve their food using a mortar and pestle.

Search for mortar and pestle
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Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I tend to think of making dairy products as something of an advanced sustainability skill.  I have made cheese, and it requires a fair amount of thought (and a good source of milk that has not been overly pasteurized, which is harder to obtain than you might think).  I have made sour cream, and it is fairly easy, but I have typically wound up with enough sour cream to stock a small Mexican restaurant.

However, I just made yogurt, and this project officially joins the DIY laundry detergent and making your own pesto as a superstar in both the budget and the end product.

It couldn't be easier.  Take your milk (I used a half gallon, but the recipe is totally scalable to the amount you need; there is no reason why you couldn't make anything from a pint to a gallon) and scald it, which means bringing it to a temperature of 180 to 190.  I have a dairy thermometer to measure this, but you could use a candy thermometer in a pinch.

Then, let the milk cool to between 110 and 120 degrees.  Stir in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt; I bought a container of organic vanilla yogurt to get my batch started, but future batches will be made from the last couple of spoons of the existing batch.  Put it in a covered container (I used a half gallon Mason jar), wrap with a towel, and let sit where it will drop no lower than 95 degrees.  This may take some doing in the winter, but right now I just tote it outside and sit it on a high plant shelf on the patio.

Don't disturb it; you are waiting for the good bacteria to grow to the point that they culture the entire batch, at which point it will be thick.  This takes about 4-5 hours.  Refrigerate.

DH notes that he likes this yogurt better than store-bought varieties.  I'm not much of a yogurt-eater, but I like this a lot.  It is milder than the store varieties.  And it is a yummy vehicle for some blackberry preserves.

(Note:  If you are packing a lunch, you could take a half pint Mason jar, add yogurt and preserves, and have your own little fruit and yogurt snack with very much the look and feel of a conventional yogurt container.)

The Analysis

Fast:  I'd say this batch took about 20 minutes of active scalding and cooling, plus the 4-5 hours of letting it sit.  And it is so easy to make, even a covert operative based in Afghanistan can probably still get his yogurt fix.  (Apologies if you aren't a Burn Notice fan and this makes no sense.)

Cheap:  I bought a half gallon of milk for $1.77; this is the only input you have to purchase if you use yogurt from the previous batch to start the new one.  This means $1.77 for 64 ounces.  By contrast, the cheapest store brand yogurt I saw on sale was $0.40 cents for one of those 6 ounce containers, which means you would pay $4.27 for just under 11 little containers of store yogurt.  That is a savings of $2.50 per batch!

Good:  Light, mild, and creamy, this may be my new favorite homemade food.
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pesto-Dressed Pasta with Garden Veggies and Mizithra Cheese

Remember when I said that garden veggies make for great frugal opportunities to try artisinal cheeses and meats that are normally so expensive if they are the feature of a dish?  This is a technique called "stretching."  Your grandmother or great-grandmother did this during WWII or the Depression, and it is how you take a pound of hamburger, add an egg (frequently from at-home laying hens in the era, even in suburban homes) and some oats or crackers or bread, and get a meatloaf that feeds a family of 6-8.

Here, I am using my garden veggies to stretch some yummy Greek Mizithra cheese I got at Jungle Jim's International Market, a northern Cincinnati institution.  Seriously, if you are at all in the area, make a trip to Jungle Jim's.  Bring a cooler and ice, and wear walking shoes.  I've been looking for Mizithra cheese basically since I first tasted it at the age of five, and the quest has, um, been a few years in duration.  Jungle Jim's had it.

Anyway, the cheese is pretty expensive, at $10.99 a pound, not normally a price I would willingly pay for cheese.  However, let's see how I stretched it:

Pesto-dressed Pasta with Garden Veggies and Mizithra Cheese
1 box pasta ($0.79)
2 oz Mizithra cheese ($1.37)
1/2 pint pesto (frozen from garden last year; free)
6-8 medium tomatoes (garden; free)
2 small leeks (garden; free)
2 cloves garlic (garden; free)
1 mild chile (garden; free)
sea salt and cracked black pepper

Cook pasta until al dente.  Coat with basil pesto, add salt to taste, and set aside.

Meanwhile, cut tomatoes into chunks and saute with leeks, garlic, and the chopped, de-seeded chile.  When the tomatoes have cooked down, but are not mush (about 10 minutes), strain the juice off and top the pasta.  Add about 2 oz. of mizithra cheese and serve.

Makes 4 large servings.  It refrigerates and reheats well, so if you have a small family or live alone, you can easily make dinner and then package up the leftovers for lunch at the office or dinner the next day.

The Analysis

Fast:  I made this twice over a single weekend, so enamoured of it were we.  It takes about 30 minutes total of active cooking. 

Cheap:  I spent $2.16 making this meal, which was $0.54 per serving for a really gourmet taste.  Note:  The reason I count garden veggies as "free" is that I count the seed order and the plant purchase each year as part of the grocery budget.  In a sense, the garden then converts to a living pantry.  Yes, I know that it is theoretically possible to put a price on each tomato, but it becomes a moving target when every tomato you bring in lowers the cost-per-tomato that much more.  So, I more or less treat the garden veg as equivalent to sea salt or olive oil; it is something I just pay to keep around.

Good:  Try this with your favorite gourmet cheese.  A strongly-flavored cheese like Mizithra doesn't require a lot to pack a punch, so you will be enjoying this yummy meal all the way to the bank!
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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why Aren't You Canning?

It is August, which means prime canning and food preservation season here in the Midwest.  However, there are always those who find out that I can my garden produce and feel that it is something beyond their abilities, so I have decided to address a few common myths about home canning:

Myth:  Canning is difficult.
Fact:  OK, you do have to pay attention to what you are doing, and the first few times you will feel like everything is happening at once, but very quickly you will hit a rhythm.  I think canning is very relaxing, in the same way I enjoy knitting and crocheting, and others enjoy assembling model airplanes.  And, just like these hobbies, you can start with something relatively easy and work your way up.  I recommend starting with jam or pickles.
Myth:  Home Canned Food is a Huge Botulism Danger
Fact:  I kind of blame the USDA and other typically helpful agencies like state and county extension services, which tend to sound vaguely alarmist in their canning instructions.  Even my beloved Putting Food By takes an extremely cautious tone.  Botulism is certainly nothing to mess with, as it can kill, so instructions on home food preservation urge you to take every precaution.

But really, according to Grit magazine, there are 145 cases of botulism in the U.S. each year, about two dozen of which come from foodborne sources.  And how many people are eating food in the U.S.?  All but the three that are presumably on a hunger strike at any given time (yes, you can get botulism from Master Cleanse, so Demi Moore was until recently still at risk).  Twenty-two cases divided by the U.S. population is an incredibly small risk per person.  Avoiding home canning because you are afraid of botulism is like not shaking hands in this country because you are afraid of Ebola.

Myth:  I can't make anything of value.
Fact:  This myth burns me up, especially when I saw a recent article that predicted that interest in home canning would wane because all you can make is condiments.  Yes, pickles and jams are the most common products to can, and they count as condiments.  However, this overlooks the fact that almost every culture on the planet has found a way to make pickled vegetables and include them as a food source; it is our food culture that mandates that pickles are used as a slice on a burger rather than a pile on a plate.  And, water bath canning is an easy method for preserving tomato chunks, sauce, and juice, none of which are condiments and all of which are dead easy to make.  Finally, let's not forget the economic (and enjoyment) value of avoiding buying all those condiments in the store and instead enjoying your own.

Myth:  I'll just lose money and fail spectacularly.
Fact:  If you have to start your canning operations from scratch, you will not be making money the first year.  You will have to buy jars, lids, a canning funnel, and a water bath canner (stock pot with rack) at minimum.  However, you will reuse all of these every year except the lids, which I think are about $1.49 a dozen.  After that first year, you will be saving money.

As far as failure, we have quite a little sub-genre of books that address the spectacular failure angle of home sustainability, supposedly to humorous results.  The $64,000 Tomato, Farm City, and My Empire of Dirt are all variations on the theme of innocent person who decides to embrace sustainability all at once and winds up investing 16 hour days and a life savings into rehabilitating a residential lot and trying to live off it.  The protagonists fail or have only limited, possibly Pyrrhic, victories.  No wonder people think this is hard. 

Remember, though, that sustainability is all about taking one step at a time.  I started gardening on my current property with only a small garden patch, and we did not pay off the mortgage from pickle savings that first year.  However, I now grow and preserve enough food to take about $2,000-3,000 off our food bill every year depending on how you do the math.

So there you have it.  I urge you to give home canning a try; here are some resources to help you out:

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