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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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bed Warmers, a.k.a. "Knee Thingies"

Last week, I talked about drying lavender blossoms, with the idea that they are useful for bed warmers.  Today, I'll talk you through the super-easy process of making one. 

These delightful little bags are often called "bed warmers" because they can be heated in the microwave and used to keep the foot of your bed warm for hours; they are also called "spa wraps" if you make a longer version that can be either heated or chilled to wrap around shoulders or sore muscles.  Since the most common use of these in our household is to soothe my bad knee, they are called "knee thingies" around here.

To make one, choose your favorite scrap of cozy fabric.  I used a leftover piece of flannel from a pair of PJ pants I made, but you can use anything you love.  In fact, I encourage you to use a piece that makes you smile when you see it; I made one last year using a piece of buffalo plaid from a 1980s dress I had, and I love seeing that fabric every time I use it.

You are just making a pillow.  Sew up three and a half sides of your fabric (with right sides together), and turn your bag inside out.  You should have a gap about half the width of the short side through which to fill the bag. 

Mix your filling.  For the one above, which is fairly small, I used about 2 cups of rice and 2/3 cup of lavender blossoms.  You want to let the filling be pretty slack, so it conforms to your feet, knee, or wherever you like.  I used a canning funnel in the opening of my bag to fill it with the rice and lavender mixture.  You can use any spice or herb; cinnamon and nutmeg are nice too.

Sew up the opening.  You can whip it by hand; I used a zig-zag stitch on my sewing machine.  You want to use a stitch you can pick out, because you really want to empty and change the filling once in a while (although I really have been bad about this).  The filling is compostable, and then the bag itself is washable if you used a washable fabric. 

To chill, put the bag in the freezer.  We keep one there most of the time, wrapped in a couple of plastic grocery bags to ward off freezer funk.  They are wonderful for post-exercise knee pain.  To heat, put in the microwave.  I nuke mine for about 3-4 minutes on high depending on size; you will want to experiment with your own particular bag and microwave.  Stick close the first few times; I have never had a problem, but you want to exercise the caution appropriate to putting a cloth bag of grain into the microwave.

The Analysis

Fast:  I whipped this "knee thingie" up in about 20 minutes.

Cheap:  My only expense was a couple of cups of cheap rice.  The lavender was from my garden, and the fabric was a remnant.

Good:  If you haven't experienced sliding one of these into the foot of your bed on a cold night, you are in for a treat.  In spite of my reticence to turn on the heat, I am fundamentally a person who can't maintain body heat, and one of these will keep me warm most of the night.  I actually like to have the bedroom a little cold just so I can enjoy the weight of a pile of quilts and the warmth of a "knee thingie." 

Fall Thermostat Challenge Update:  Although I weakened for a few hours at the end of last week (I just couldn't get the house to warm up higher than 61 degrees), a burst of warmth has allowed me to turn the heat back off and keep saving that money!  Total since Labor Day:  778 hours, or 32.4 days!
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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Drying Lavender

I'm not much for decorative plants; one look at the petunias that I grudgingly put out each year will tell you that.  However, I am in love with lavender, a rather delicate perennial that, as it turns out, is pretty useful indeed.

Many people use lavender to cook with, but I really grow it for the fragrance.  I have plants out by the mailbox, where I can enjoy their scent every time I get the mail.  At the end of the season, I cut all of the long-stemmed flowers and bring them inside to lay on newspapers in a sunny south-facing window.  (I keep a few out for decoration in my foyer, as you see above.)

Once the lavender is dry, I strip the little flower buds off and keep them in a jar.  They are wonderful as potpourri; I love potpourri in my bathrooms, but I hate the neon-colored, shiny stuff you buy at the store.  I also mix lavender in with my rice to make spa wraps and bed warmers for those achy muscles and cold winter nights.

The Analysis

Fast:  This one takes almost no time at all.  Just enjoy your lavender while it grows, then spend a few minutes total preparing it for drying and stripping the flowers when dry.

Cheap:  As lavender is at least technically a perennial, the cost of the plants is spread over a few years.  Mulch the plants every year to give them the best chance of coming back in the spring.

Good:  Nothing smells better than lavender in a bed warmer (which we will talk about next time!).

Fall Thermostat Challenge Update

It's been a while since I updated you on my fall thermostat challenge.  We have been enjoying a few weeks of really moderate temps here in Ohio, and it has been easy to not run either the heat or the AC.  Only lately have the mornings started to be a little painful, as the daytime temps are not really sufficient to put the house heat "over the top" to handle the frosty nights.  However, the house is quite comfortable in the afternoons, and mornings are handled with some fleece socks, a cup of coffee, and a space heater in the office.  I've also been catching up on my baking and venting the drier inside.

Total savings since Labor Day:  663 hours, or 27.63 days without whole-house heat or AC!
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Failure to Forage

When it comes to sustainable living projects, I'm a bit like an eight year old on Christmas morning when I discover one I haven't tried before.  I have salivated over DIY solar collectors for south facing windows, pondered backyard chickens, and calculated how much herb gardening I can sneak into the front yard under the guise of decorative plants.  So naturally, when the Old Farmers Almanac posted a link to Facebook last week detailing how to process acorns to make acorn meal, I was irrationally excited.

"I have oak trees; there's food out there for the taking!" I thought, grabbing a bowl and heading to the side yard.  Since one of my food goals for the 2011 growing season is to do more "suburban foraging," I thought this would be a great pre-season kick-off.  I no time, I had a heaping bowlful, which I placed in a sunny spot in the nearly-completed sunroom for drying while I took time to investigate my next steps.

Now, I should note that our suburban back yard is like no other I've ever experienced.  In spite of living on a corner lot near a fairly busy road, the fenced back yard typically looks like a Disney film on crack.  At any given time, you have no problem locating squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits -- and most of them are completely unfazed by humans.  This spring -- I swear I'm not making this up -- I saw a mother rabbit lead three young bunnies to the edge of the garden fence and practically show them how to crawl through the spaces.  Last year -- and I'm not making this up either, nor was I on large doses of cold medicine at the time -- I watched a pair of squirrels chase one another across our fence, only to take a flying leap to land on our window awning.  They did this repeatedly for a good 15 minutes.  Our creatures are insane, and they seem to view me more as pest than predator.

So, it should not have surprised me when I went out to the sunroom Sunday and found two acorns, well-nibbled, in the corner of the room.  I assumed I had dropped them, and I cleaned them up.  Yesterday, I went out to find the opposite corner now totally filled with shredded acorns and discarded shells, along with a very much emptied bowl of acorns.

Long story short, I stormed out to the compost in my homemade fleece socks (too mad to put on flip flops) and got rid of my sustainable acorns, then my poor husband spent the evening taping any likely cracks in the house that might be an entry point for nefarious chipmunks who think I have put out a buffet for them.  Hopefully, that will indicate the point of entry, and we can deal with it.

I don't think we'll be living on acorn meal any time soon.
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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Slightly-More-Frugal Book Buying

OK, confession time:  I really love books.

This is a problem for my frugal and sustainable cred, because I don't just want to read them; I want to own them.  While the usual frugality no-brainer is to tell someone to use the library, there is just something about bringing home a new copy from the store.  I like the smell of the print, I like the feel of the book in my hand, and I like the look of it on my shelf when I'm done.

So, stipulated:  I should be going to the library more to support our local libraries, to save on print and transportation, and to help my budget.  If I simply must have a book, I should buy an e-reader and take advantage of lower-cost electronic copies.

However, right now, it ain't gonna happen.  I've been helpless to control myself in a bookstore since I learned to read at age 3, and I don't think it is stopping anytime soon.  (I should note that this is probably my parents' "fault."  While it seems that I had to justify the expense of a new toy if it wasn't a holiday, my parents went out of their way to facillitate my reading habit.  If I win the lottery, one of the first things I will be doing is reimbursing them for the first 18 years of trips to the library, to the bookstore, and even to the grocery store magazine rack and the drugstore comic book rack, all in the hope of feeding the monster that was my reading habit.)

So, if you are like me, I have a couple of tips to at least moderate the amount of book-buying that goes on:

1.  My first tip is so simple, I'm kicking myself for only thinking of it recently.  There are many books I see on the shelf that I want to read, but I am at least willing to admit that I don't need them in hardback.  However, most mid-list titles kind of disappear when they appear in paper, so I am always fearful that I will miss them.  Therefore, I'm tempted to buy the hardback.  To combat this, I've started taking a photo of the book on the shelf (as above) with my iPhone, then storing these photos in an iPhone file called "Books."  Periodically, I can look to see which of my titles are out in paperback, and I'll delete the photo when I've purchased or dismissed the book.

2.  Along the same lines, I make liberal use of my wishlist.  (Any readers who would like to support FC&G can send me a gift from that list -- just kidding!)  Sometimes, the book urge is satisfied by a wish list "shopping trip" in which I stock the list; sometime later, I can consider if I need a treat or if I can live without the books.

3.  Finally, not every book earns a permanent home on my shelves.  When I remove a title from my personal library, I sell it at a used book store.  This doesn't recoup much of my money, but it does help a bit.

The Analysis

Fast:  The first two ideas are relatively quick ways to help me control and pace my book-buying habit.

Cheap:  I'm the first to say that my new-book-buying habit is not cheap.  But hopefully I can control it into a manageable expense.

Good:  A book is always a good thing.
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fall Linen Washing

The Midwest, particularly our corner of Ohio, is enjoying some unseasonably warm weather.  I'm loving having days of 85 degrees in which to get the yardwork done!

One of my traditional fall tasks, regardless of the temperature or duration of Indian Summer, is to wash all of the quilts, bedspreads, and blankets and hang them on the outside line to dry.  This simple tip allows you to start your winter with bedding and throws that all smell of summer, and, for me, every quilt I hang to dry saves me about an hour of drier time.

One caveat:  October has less heat, less direct sunlight, and shorter days than, say, July.  In July, I can pretty much do this task (if I wish -- I usually do it in May to prepare for summer) in one day by continually washing quilts and knowing they will be dry in about two hours.  Now, each quilt takes all day to dry, so plan ahead and prioritize your loads to take advantage of the few remaining warm days ahead!
The Analysis

Fast:  Line drying is definitely slower than using the appliance, but you don't really have to be involved for much of the process, either way.

Cheap:  As noted, for me each quilt washed and line-dried saves about an hour of drier time.  I'm not sure what this translates to in dollars and cents, but it has to be noticeable.

Good:  Your bonus is fresh bedding that smells of sun and air to cuddle into during the cold weeks to come.
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Friday, October 8, 2010

The Last Tomato Harvest

Sigh.  The last tomato harvest. 

With frost threatening a few days ago, it was time for the last tomato harvest.  Since tomatoes don't do particularly well during and after a frost, even when the weather warms back up, that first sub-40 forecast means it is time to bring in everything that can possibly be useful.

Which, really, is quite a lot.  If you haven't yet made your last tomato harvest, do so when frost threatens (or now, if it already has happened).  Take every tomato of any size that is shiny green.  Some gardeners prefer to only take "breakers," those tomatoes that are just getting a blush on them, but I grab everything with a shine to it.  These tomatoes will ripen in the house.

As you can see, I pretty unceremoniously throw all my green tomatoes into a cardboard box, then every day I grab out those that are turning orange and put them on the counter to use quickly.  These are not high-quality red tomatoes like you had in August; they will be a bit tough, and they go bad quickly.  You will not really be wanting to eat them raw or slice them on a sandwich, but they are great for cooking.  These give you a few late-season extra-cheap garden meals before you have to start hitting your cans, freezer, and cellar for provisions.  Last night, I used some of these house-ripened tomatoes to make a simple pasta sauce:

4-5 large house-ripened tomatoes, cut into chunks
2 leeks (still going strong in garden)
1 package Andouille sausage cut into chunks ($3.99 from Trader Joe's)

Simmer all ingredients until flavors blend.  Use to top pasta or rice.  With the addition of some cheap pasta from the pantry, I had a meal of two dinners and two lunches for under $5.

The Analysis

Fast:  Yes, that last tomato harvest comes all too "fast."  Seriously, it takes no time to run out to the garden and fill a box with shiny green tomatoes when frost threatens.

Cheap:  Another few cheap meals are just what the budget ordered, and another way to get more veggies in our diet.

Good:  I can't really call the last tomato harvest "good."  I hate harvesting the tomatoes when the wind is blowing up a chill, and I hate the feel of cold tomatoes when I just spent the whole summer picking and eating them while they are warm.  But using the last of a precious resource is very good, indeed.  I'll probably have cooking tomatoes until the end of the month from this last harvest.
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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Few Words About Plants

 In keeping with my tip round-up, today I have a few suggestions about plants:

1.  Just because you can't grow tomatoes in the fall (at least at most North American latitudes) doesn't mean you can't garden.  Take a container of your choosing and throw in a few leftover lettuce seeds; there is plenty of time for an extra salad or two (or more) if you are careful about where you put the container and whether you cover it when it frosts.  The above lettuce bed is one that we scavenged from the curb when a neighbor was cleaning out a garage, and it should continue to produce lettuce for a few weeks yet, especially when we move it to the new patio/greenhouse (spoiler alert!).

2.  Herbs are usually pretty temperature sensitive, but that doesn't mean that you have to treat them with the care that you would an African violet.  Above you will see some mojito mint happily growing in a pot indoors.  Less than two weeks ago, I unceremoniously  yanked a root from the ground and laid it in this pot with some stem peeking out, and today I have enough mint to mix mojitos or put on baked fish.  You can try to bring any of your outdoor herbs inside; some will make the transition, some won't, but what do you have to lose?  One year I brought both rosemary and thyme inside; they ultimately died, but not before I got a few extra meals that included fresh herbs.

3.  While we are talking herbs, I encourage you not to yank your annuals out by the roots when they die back.  Last year, I got lazy and never managed to pull out the sage, but I mulched the bed.  Imagine my shock when the roots sent up new shoots and I had a bumper crop of sage this year with no investment in plants.  A friend had similar results with basil, which really surprises me.  This year I'll be cutting all my herbs back but not taking the root; if they don't sprout next year, I'll pull up the root.  In the meantime, anything that doesn't live will decompose and create compost for the soil.

4.  Lastly, think about what you can do to spread agriculture to your community, even in unlikely places.  Check out the work of organizations like Adopt A Farmbox, which provides raised boxes to schools and community organizations to grow their own food.  What would be better than every school in the country dedicating a little space and a few lessons to growing food?  I would celebrate the day that the lunch menu said "Salad grown by third grade classes," and the trays had something uber-local on them.  I'll bet the kids would eat their greens, too; certainly the third grade would.
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