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Friday, March 26, 2010

Bargain Bulletin: Stock Up on Pantry Supplies


In previous posts, I have commented that the best way to save grocery money is not to clip coupons, but to cook from whole foods and basic ingredients, which rarely go on sale or are subject to coupons. 

The exception to this is baking supplies, which tend to go on sale around the major "cooking holidays," like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter.  Since Easter is upon us, it is time to check your store for specials on flour, powdered sugar, brown sugar, yeast, and spices.  Many of these will be displayed on the end caps of the aisles.  I tend to buy store brands of most things, but if you prefer brand name spices (which I do for ones I don't grow), there is usually a coupon or two to be had in the weeks leading up to the holidays.  Since these baking supplies tend to keep for months or longer, this is a smart time to pick up an extra bag of brown sugar or an extra jar of yeast.

The Analysis

Fast:  Obviously, it takes no more time to buy an item on sale than it does to buy one full price.  I'll give you that it takes a few extra second to carry that second bag of brown sugar to the cart and then in from the car....

Cheap:  Stocking up on basic supplies when they go on predictable sales is an easy and smart money management technique.

Good:  Having the right cooking supplies on hand, purchased at a good price, is a great incentive to cook more of your own meals and treats at home.
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fixing My Mistakes

Oops

I once cherished (and accidentally got published in Reader's Digest, but that's another story) a quote that said, "Practice doesn't make perfect, nor is it supposed to. Practice is about increasing your repertoire of ways to recover from your mistakes."  Nowhere is this as true as in homemaking.

See the above towel.  When DH and I were first married, I got distracted doing laundry, and I bleached a towel that should not have been bleached.  I then retired the towel to dirty jobs like highlighting hair, which means that over the years it has taken additional bleach damage.  The results you see above.

Now, the obvious choice is to turn the towel into rags, but I thought I'd see what I could salvage.  I was able to cut seven 12"x12" wash cloths out of the good parts of the towel, still leaving several cleaning rags.  
 

The raw edges I finished by turning them under a half an inch and sewing with a zig-sag stitch.  Note that not all edges of a cloth need to be finished; the ones that originally were the bottom and sides of the towel are fine as they are.

Did I need to do this?  No.  However, I took some pleasure in saving an item that I had destroyed with my carelessness.  And, when you look at it, I saved a little money:

The Analysis:

Fast:  I tend to sew simple things as thought breaks while I work, so putting these cloths on the pile to be finished didn't really take much additional time out of my schedule.

Cheap:  The least expensive wash cloth of any significant weight I can find in the store is $1, and I have seen heavy ones go for as much as $5 a piece.  Since I was able to get seven cloths out of my destroyed towel, I in effect created $7 worth of value.  I doubt the original towel cost more than $7 (9 years ago at a discount department store), so I have either saved money I would otherwise have spent on new washcloths, or at minimum I have preserved the value of the original towel.

Good:  This one comes down to a philosophy of waste.  If you look at your mistakes and think "how can I recover from that and respect the resource given to me," then you will over time save money and cultivate a more respectful attitude toward the things you work so hard to buy.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Hang Out That Laundry!


I promised I was going to be less of a wimp about hanging my laundry outside this year, and here is the proof.  With a temp of 55 degrees here in Ohio (albeit headed for the upper 60s today), I have hung the first load of laundry of the year outside.  Normally, I don't start until the temp hits 65.

Avoiding your clothes drier is one of the best ways to save electricity and money.  That appliance, love it though we do in January, is an energy-hog.  Every load you dry outside or on a drying rack is money that goes straight to your bottom line.

I love the picture above, snapped moments before this post.  I love the juxtaposition of the sunny day and clothes line with the fleece pillowcases still warming our bed at night and the leftover autumn leaves on the ground. 

Have you started hanging clothes outside this year?

The Analysis:

Fast:  Hanging clothes takes more time than dumping them in the drier, but when it is warmer, I think of it as my time to relax and get a little Vitamin D from the sun.

Cheap:  Can't get any cheaper than free!  (OK, you do have the start-up cost of a clothes line, but everyone should be able to find at least a piece of twine to string between two trees.)

Good:  Hanging clothes outside is one of my great pleasures, and I'm so happy to be back out there.  The cost and resource savings are almost beside the point for me.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Berries and Cream Smoothie

Why, no, I don't polish the spots off my crystal -- why do you ask?

Back on the sustainability track this week, it is time to make smoothies!

Now, I know that a traditional smoothie is made with yogurt, ice cubes, and unsugared berries.  It is very virtuous.  I also know that I don't like yogurt, and I have a freezer full of strawberries (preserved with sugar) from last year that need to start vacating to make room for this year's crop.  So I devised this quick and easy smoothie:

1 quart berries, thawed (sugared if you prefer or have preserved them that way)
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (I like the Trader Joe's version, from horomone-free milk and pasturized but not ultrapasturized)

Place in blender and blend.  Makes 2.5 large servings (the half serving is pictured above!)

The Analysis:

Fast:  If you remember to thaw your berries, this takes only a few seconds in the blender to make a couple of day's worth of smoothie for one person, or an excellent huge serving of berries for each of two people.

Cheap:  The whipping cream was $2.49 for a pint, so $0.62 for a half cup.  That means the entire recipe comes in at less than $1.00, figure by guess-timating the amount of sugar and you-pick berries I added.  That means you can have a good snack or a reasonable meal substitute for less than $0.50.

Good:  This is an easy way to get a lot of fruit, some protein from the dairy, and enough fat to aid your body's absorption of the vitamins.  Plus, more freezer space for this year's berries!
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Monday, March 15, 2010

Falling Short of the Goal


Last week was a decidedly iffy week on the sustainability front, as you may have guessed from the presence of just one blog post.  So, let's look at how I did:

The Good:
  • I baked two loaves of bread.
  • I did all the week's laundry with my homemade laundry soap.
  • I sewed five new wash cloths from some terry cloth I found in the remnant bin at my favorite fabric store.
  • I heated the house with passive solar heat and good "window management" (that is, opening and closing curtains) for at least 48 total hours.
  • I nursed some baby tomato seedlings to life (Mortgage Lifters -- let's hope they live up to their name!) and repotted a few pepper seedlings.
  • I actually remembered to turn off the power supply to the in-house DSL network on Friday night, so I wasn't drawing unused power all weekend.
The Bad:
  • I made two trips to the grocery that should have been rolled into one.  In my defense, I had some horrible Midwestern sinus thing going on, and one trip was just to get some OTC medication to get me through, while the next night I actually got supplies and did my banking run.
  • I forgot to throw my lingerie bag of used-but-reusable make-up wipes in the laundry, so if I don't find a load for them in the next two days, I'm back to cotton balls until I do.
  • I bumped the heat up a few degrees when the cold weather came back.  (See above-mentioned horrible Midwestern sinus thing.)
  • I let a pint of blueberries die of neglect.
So how did I do?  On the one hand, I hate that I dropped a few balls in there.  But mostly, I'm proud that I have systems in place that get me through when my attention is divided.  On balance, even with a rough week, I think I did more good for budget and planet than I did bad.  That's the most any of us can do.
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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Passive Solar Heat

Let That Sunshine In!

March is finally here; it couldn't come soon enough for me.  After enduring a Midwestern winter, these first warm days in the 50s are a blessing. 

They are also a golden opportunity to heat your house with an energy source you don't have to pay for:  solar.  Even without expensive collectors and arrays, you can heat your house with passive solar energy, just by opening curtains and blinds on east-facing windows in the morning, and south- and west-facing windows in the afternoon.  (I find the north-facing windows never collect that much sun, but that may have something to do with the construction/positioning of our house.)

Even with temps in the upper 40s at the start of the week, I was able to heat my house up to 64 degrees with passive solar yesterday, which is a degree above the 63 degree set point of my thermostat for daytime.  I expect today, with temps in the upper 50s, the sun will warm the house even more.  I will start turning the heat off during the day and just using it to "catch" the house at night so nothing freezes (including me).

The Analysis

Fast:  Can't get much faster than opening those curtains!

Cheap:  Every degree you heat your house by passive solar is one you don't pay for from the gas or electric company.  In my part of Ohio, this is the official start of three months of spring savings on power bills, which will probably end in June when I finally cave in on using the A/C.

Good:  Nothing prettier or nicer than a warm, bright house on a spring day, particularly when you don't have to pay for it!
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Friday, March 5, 2010

Homemade Egg Noodles

Homemade Egg Noodles

If you have a good source of farm-raised, pastured eggs, one of the best ways of showing them off is by making homemade egg noodles.

We often think of homemade pasta as a time-intensive process that includes a lot of mess and a lot of rolling equipment to clean.  In reality, most "peasant" cultures have developed quick ways of making pasta; it really should be considered a quick staple rather than an occasional treat.

To make homemade pasta you will need:

"Equal amounts" flour and eggs.  That is, if you have three eggs, you need to use three cups of flour
Pinch of salt
Water as needed


Place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the center; crack the eggs into the well, and add the salt.  Mix with water as needed to make a thick paste (the genesis of the word "pasta").

If you are pressed for time, you can then take this mixture by rounded spoonfuls and drop into a pot of boiling water; when the dumplings float, they are cooked.  Or, if you have a little more time, you can roll the dough out into a sheet about a half an inch thick and cut into your desired shape with a pizza cutter or knife.


In the image at the top of the post, you will see that I cut my pasta dough into rectangles and then twisted it to make bow-ties.  I had a lot of time on my hands that day, and the whole project still took only 45 minutes.  When I am pressed, I will just cut the rectangles and be done.

Cook the fresh pasta in salted boiling water until it floats; you will need to cook much less pasta than you normally do store-bought pasta, as this is denser and more filling.  If you have cut your noodles thin enough, you can dry them by leaving them sitting out in on a cookie sheet.

The Analysis

Fast:  It takes less time to make noodles than you think; remember, "peasant" food is nothing if not efficient to make.

Cheap:  Most of your cost comes from the eggs; since my pastured eggs are nearly 30 cents a piece, this batch of pasta came in at less than $1.75, and the batch generated at least four servings.

Good:  Don't cover these up with heavy sauce; I like to have my homemade egg noodles with pasture butter and home grown sage.  Yum.
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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Let's Compost! Pt. I

For me, the epitome of "Fast, Cheap, and Good" might be composting.  It is quick and easy to toss your organic waste into a compost pile, it certainly costs nothing, and it keeps waste out of the landfills while generating beautiful humus for your garden.

For the novice composter, however, composting appears to be a difficult chore.  Our culture simply doesn't teach us to compost, and marketers have rushed into the void with tons of products meant to "get you started." 

This year, I'd like you to consider redirecting some of your waste to compost; to help, this is the first in a series on how to compost.  I'll start with some frequently asked questions:

Is composting difficult?
No.  Remember, much of human history has been lived without a weekly trash pick-up.  Communities regularly put their waste into piles; archeologists love this kind of thing.  What we are going to do is use a natural decomposition process to take care of organic waste, which will result in fewer beads and pottery shards for future archeologists, but might keep the planet around long enough for future excavations.

Does compost smell bad?
Yes and no.  Part of the misunderstanding about compost comes from the fact that we use the word "compost" to mean three separate phases of the project.  Let me break these down and give each its own term:

"Raw compost" is your table scraps, egg shells, and the like.  If you let this sit around in your compost container in the house, it will indeed mold and smell bad.  A little fireplace wood ash in the bottom of your container will control the odor, but it really needs to go out on the pile to start breaking down.

"Working compost" is the material in your pile.  This is the stuff from your household compost bucket, plus dirt, grass clippings, fallen leaves, and the like.  Earthworms and certain soil bacteria love this, and as they munch away, they assist the process of decomposition.  If your compost pile smells, it is probably because you have too much "green matter" (generally from raw compost) and too little "brown matter" (like leaves, grass, and dirt).  If your working compost pile smells, you need to stir it with a pitchfork and add a little brown matter to the top.  Easy.

"Finished compost" is humus, the dark brown dirt that can be used as potting soil or as garden fertilizer.  One of the ways you know it is finished is by the smell -- it smells of life, freshness, and Spring.  It is truly one of my favorite scents.

Do I need an expensive container?
No.  Garden retailers have devised a number of products for compost creation, most of which are unnecessary.  One of these is the rotating plastic drum that is supposed to generate finished compost in two to six weeks.  Who needs their compost that fast?  A large-scale gardener might, but then that person will need a lot more finished compost than can be created in that drum.

There is one circumstance in which a commercial compost drum might be useful:  If you are composting in an urban environment or one in which you have absolutely no land (like an apartment or a condo with restrictive common space regulations), you may only be able to compost in a container.  Otherwise, you should try to put your compost in contact with the ground.

Do I need compost additives?
Again, compost additives, like live earthworms and bacteria innoculant, are useful only for container composting.  Even then, a few shovels of "live" dirt (that is, not the sterilized stuff sold as potting soil) and a few earthworms (which I would be tempted to buy cheap at a bait shop) will do the trick. 

Are my neighbors going to complain?
If you are worried about the neighbors, your job is either to educate them or to make sure they never know you are composting.  If you choose the latter, you may want to enclose your pile in a frame made of picket fence panels rather than the chicken wire that folks like me use.  You can use the same set of construction instructions one would use to make an enclosure for an air conditioner compressor, only be sure to use fence panels with openings that will let in rain and air.  Monitor your pile closely for any odor that indicates you need more brown matter, and your neighbors shouldn't even know unless they come over and lift the lid.

Will I attract critters?
I will confess that I sometimes leave strawberry trimmings on the top of the pile to feed the rabbits that inhabit my property.  (Then I complain mightily a month later when they have stayed around to eat my tomatoes.)  Small herbivores shouldn't be much of a concern for you, but if you are concerned about larger animals, be certain that you always mix the raw compost into the working pile very well.

I hope this makes you think a little about starting your own composting operation; we will consider the how-tos in a future post.  Readers, let me know:  do you currently compost?  Are you considering it for this year?
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