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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Freezing Cherries


We used to have a sour cherry tree.  I didn't know it when we bought our property; after we had been here for a few months, my father-in-law wet out back gleefully and started eating off what I was sure was a tree with ornamental berries.  When he informed us we were the proud owners of a pie cherry tree, I started preserving cherries in earnest.

Alas, a couple of years ago, our cherry tree was hit by lightening.  It survived another year, with one pathetic limb leafing out and bearing fruit, until it fell over in another storm.

This year, I purchased cherries from the farm market.  I got five heaping pints for $3.50 a pint, which was actually enough to freeze 6 pints worth.  If you want to do this yourself, it is easy:

  • Wash and pit cherries.  That tool you see in the bowl of pitted cherries above is a pitter; you just place the cherry in the little pocket, then close the tool to drive the spike through the cherry, taking the pit with you.  This tool is great if you are going to do a few pints to a few quarts every year; if you are planning on a cherry production in the bushels, you may want a different tool built for volume.  If you don't have a pitter, you can do the job with a paper clip or your thumb fingernail.
  • Coat the cherries in cane sugar at the rate of about 3/4 cup to a quart of cherries.  You want enough to coat but not overwhelm.
  • Place in storage containers, label, and freeze.
With six pints of cherries in the freezer, I probably have enough for three deep dish pies or the equivalent amount of smoothies.  They join the strawberries I already have as my fruit supply for winter.

The Analysis

Fast:  Pitting cherries takes some time, but I still put up these six pints in about an hour.

Cheap:  No doubt these cherries are more expensive than canned prepared pie filling from the store, but they will be cheaper than the "fresh" imports from California or whereever in the middle of winter.

Good:  Once you make a pie with cherries you put up in summery, you'll never go back to the industrial crap covered in HFCS.
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Friday, June 25, 2010

Meat Calculator

I don't cook a lot of meat, so when I go to the store looking for a particular cut, I am often dependent on my visual assessment of size to determine if I have enough in the package I'm considering.  However, to truly make good decisions, I need to have a better understanding of how many servings I have per package of a given cut, and what the price per serving works out to.

That's why I was pleased to see in this morning's Everyday Cheapskate a link to a very comprehensive guide to Buying Meat By the Serving from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.  In it, you will find a comprehensive chart detailing servings per pound from particular meat cuts, as well as a chart that allows you to cross reference price per pound and servings per pound to find your cost per serving.  So, you may find that a cut you think is more expensive actually works out to a lower cost per serving if you can get more servings per pound. 

One caveat:  this calculator does not take into account secondary uses of the leftovers, nor personal preference about trimming.  So, if you find a well-marbled steak and plan to cut off the majority of the fat, you are also decreasing the weight and the theoretical number of servings.  Additionally, if you buy a bone-in cut of meat and plan to make stock with the bone and trimmings, I think it would be fair to add another serving or two to the computation to account for the multiple uses.

Calculators like this are invaluable to truly understanding your food costs, and that is why I decided to pass this tip along today.  (Thanks again to Everyday Cheapskate for covering this first!)  Additionally, let me note that state extension offices are great sources of information like this, free to the public.  If you have some time to devote to web surfing, it is fun to look up your state extension office and see what free publications are available -- almost certainly, you will find information on growing and preserving foods that do well in your geographic area.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Deal of the Week

In the absence of an example of truly sustainable living, I decided today to blog (gloat?) about my two most recent great deals.  If nothing else, I hope they illustrate the kinds of deals you can get if you keep your eyes open.

First, when we purchased our new mattress a year ago, I was left with an orphaned flat sheet; the fitted sheet from the set simply didn't have deep enough pockets, but there was nothing wrong with the flat sheet.  Although I did buy (and get given as a gift) two sets of sheets that fit properly, I realized that I was only a fitted sheet short of a third set.  (I always have plenty of pillowcases, because sewing fleece ones and embroidering percale ones is one of my hobbies.)  With three sets, I would be able to wash sheets every other week, two sets at a time in my large capacity washer and on my large capacity outdoor line.

So, I waited until I had amassed enough reward certificates from my L.L. Bean credit card, which I use for regular purchases and pay off each month.  I saved up $30 of certificates, then found a lovely fitted sheet for $35.  If you pay with your L.L. Bean Visa, you also get free shipping and handling.  Therefore, one "new" set of sheets (plus every other week off from washing that load of laundry) was $5.  Score!

Then, our local Meijer had an offer in which you would receive a $10 coupon if you brought a new prescription into the pharmacy.  As it happens, my family had a one-time prescription we needed filled, so we took advantage of this.  I was able to go to the grocery  and get a bag of stuff I needed, which included some basics like pasta and beef bullion cubes, and I got $0.79 back!  Again, score!

These aren't necessarily approaches I will be able to easily repeat.  I can certainly save up cash back credit card coupons and use them to get something I need (which I do frequently with the L.L. Bean Visa, which I love because it also doesn't assess any fees for paying in full every month), but you only need a new prescription occasionally, and it is rare for that to line up with a great coupon offer.  Nonetheless, keep your eyes open, and I'll bet you can score a deal in your daily life.

What is the best deal you've gotten recently?
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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Wood Corral



Like any good "micro-farm" (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek, for those of you with actual farms), we have one or more of everything:  a range of food plants, a barn full of tools, and a few wood piles.  It is this latter that has been of great concern.

We typically separate our wood into multiple piles.  The pine we save for cooking out, replacing charcoal or propane for our meals cooked outside.  (It makes for a wonderful flavor, by the way.)  The hardwoods we separate out for burning in the house, where we have a fireplace insert/stove that does an admirable job of heating our primary living area.

To say that we heat with wood would be a gross overstatement on par with calling our 0.71 suburban acres a "farm."  (I am planning a post, in fact, on the damage I think writers do when they take on the "farm" label as a writing stunt.)  However, there are about a half a dozen weekend days a year that we wind up avoiding use of the whole-house heat in favor of heating the primary living area with the fireplace insert.  There are an additional comparable number of deep winter weekends that we can close off this primary living area, cut the whole-house heat down to the bare bones, and cuddle up with a cozy fire.  We have secured most of our wood over the past several years from deadfall and tree trimming, so it is free.  (And, for those of you keeping score, it would also already be giving its carbon back to the environment by rotting, so burning just speeds the process a bit.)

Our piles, however, are in disarray under our pine trees, and I decided to do something about it while hubby was out of town on business.  I went to the local big box hardware store and got a dozen foot-square tiles and eight garden fence stakes.  Total cost:  $41.  (Actually, less, because I  bought 12 stakes but used four of the stakes in the garden.)  I contributed some rabbit fence to divide a small kindling area off from the main log area, as you can see in the photo above.  It is nice to know that rabbit fence does something on our property, because it doesn't do anything else other than keep the rabbits feeling safe while they sit in the garden and eat my veggies.

I laid the tile out in a 4x3 grid, then put the stakes in the arrangement you see.  It is a very loose design that will just keep logs from rolling off this platform, while allowing the wood to cure a little faster.  With any luck, it will also eliminate those days when we opt against a fire because we haven't brought wood up to the house, and going out back would mean prying wood out of the soggy ground.  Also, should we have to store a significant amount of wood one day, it is easily expanded, and we can move it if we ever replace the barn.

The Analysis

Fast:  This took about 90 minutes for me and my wimpy muscles to construct.  But I found I am strong enough to swing a sledgehammer!   Go, me!

Cheap:  I don't think $41 is that bad for solving a problem and cleaning up the appearance of the wood area of the property.  However, it will take us a while to have enough extra fires to truly offset the cost in heat savings. 

Good:  I'm pretty proud of myself, actually, and I burned a few calories in the cause of gaining a few BTUs this winter.


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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Super Pine Cleaner


Our culture is obsessed with shipping water.

Think about it:  From bottles of drinking water shipped coast to coast or even from overseas to cases of soda pop to bottles of household cleaner, we spend a tremendous amount of fuel, time, and energy carrying a small amount of the desired product suspended or dissolved in a lot of water.  This is insane:  water is heavy and cumbersome to ship, takes up a fair amount of space, and is usually as readily available at the destination as at the source.

I'm not going to address bottled water or soda pop other than to say:  get a filter on your tap if you are worried, and save pop for an occasional treat (and know that I'm not perfect either on the latter).  However, paying extra for diluted household cleaners is a waste of money, even if you are unconcerned about environmental impact.

I recommend to you a product like the above:  Super Pine, available at Lehman's.  This is a super-concentrated form of the pine oil that you are usually seeking when you buy bottle after bottle of household cleaner (such as Pine Sol).  At $13.95 for 32 oz., this product comes in at $0.44 per ounce before shipping.  An ounce is plenty to make a bottle of cleaner (keep one of your old bottles from the other cleaner brands, and use this as a handy way to know how much water to add), or you can double up if you want "extra strength." 

This product is biodegradable, very effective, and very versatile.  I use it primarily to clean the bathrooms, but I use it everywhere:  counters, floor, and toilets.  It leaves a wonderfully clean smell, and it isn't irritating and chemical-smelling like some of its competitors.  Best of all, your pre-shipping cost per bottle will wind up between $0.44 and $0.88, depending on how much of the base cleaner you add.  I have never seen household cleaner at the grocery for less than $1.75 per bottle, and that was a promotional special on a store brand.  You can easily spend $2-$3 on the stuff, and it is easy to need a bottle every week or two. 

For budget friendliness, if nothing else, stop paying to ship water.

The Analysis

Fast:  The time it takes to mix a bottle is about equivalent to the amount of time it takes to pick up a bottle of cleaner at the grocery and tote it into the house, so, pardon the pun, it is probably a wash.

Cheap:  Savings will depend on how much product you use, whether you pay to have this shipped alone or add it to another order (Lehman's has great canning supplies, if you need them, so it pays to make a bigger order), and how much you usually pay for your household cleaner.  Nonetheless, I'm pretty confident in saying you will save at least $1 per bottle.  If you usually run through a couple of bottles a month, that would be $24 in yearly savings. 

Good:  I find the cleaning ability of this product to be as good if not better than the water-logged versions from the store.  And avoiding paying someone to ship water to me is a moral victory.
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Monday, June 14, 2010

Feverfew


If there is one thing that regularly plagues my life, it is headaches.  These can range from tension type headaches that seem to never go away to migraines that cause me to spend a few unpleasant hours laying on a cold bathroom floor, trying to make them stop.  While I have tried both over-the-counter and prescription medications, I'm not happy with the potential side effects of some of the more common migraine pharmaceuticals.

I have read for years about the potential headache-busting effects of feverfew, and it has always been on my list of things to try.  This year, I ordered some up from Richters, and I have it growing in my new front herb bed.

Wikipedia gives a nice summary of the potential benefits of feverfew, including:  "It has been used for reducing fever, for treating headaches, arthritis and digestive problems. It is hypothesized that by inhibiting the release of serotonin and prostaglandins, both of which are believed to aid the onset of migraines, feverfew limits the inflammation of blood vessels in the head. This would, in theory, stop the blood vessel spasm which is believed to contribute to headaches. Feverfew may also have GABAergic effects." 

Disclaimer:  I am not a physician.  This is not medical advice.  I elected to experiment on myself after research that goes deeper than Wikipedia, plus the reports of others.  Don't try any herbal medication along with a prescription or OTC medication, and be sure to tell your doctor so that he/she can take them into account.

OK, so disclaimer done, let me say that feverfew ROCKS!  I don't know whether the plant is helping, or if it is a placebo effect, but I have had precisely one headache of any duration in the past three weeks.  This is, um, really uncommon for me.  I have also noticed the effect that was mentioned on the plant tag that feverfew can produce a sense of well-being.  It is subtle, but I occasionally feel simply terrific.  Of course, who wouldn't without a headache.

Herbal medications have a lot to recommend them.  We tend to distrust them because of our reliance on other pharmaceuticals, but herbal medications have been a staple of human life for millennia.  While there are many, many occasions that call for a visit to the doctor and pharmacy, I think -- for me  -- it is worthwhile to experiment cautiously with more natural solutions to health issues.  If you do, do so after doing your own research, and do so cautiously.

For those of you who decide to join me in nibbling the landscaping, I have been eating about an inch worth of feverfew leaf every day.  The plant tag suggested one could eat one to four leaves, and I'm staying cautious at the moment. 

The Analysis

Fast:  It takes very little time to nibble a leaf as I get the mail.

Cheap:  I thought this would be a money-loser, but if feverfew continues to help, I'll get the plant price back in ibuprofen savings alone.

Good:  A day without a headache is sustainable living at its best.
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Friday, June 11, 2010

The Sustainable Bookshelf: Putting Food By



I spend  lot of time on this blog talking about things you can make yourself to save money and live a healthier life, but part of sustainability is being able to do the things you want and need, in an emergency or for enjoyment.

To that end, I will occasionally be suggesting books that I have on my "sustainable bookshelf."  These are titles that I turn to time and again to give me instructions and input on how to do things "Fast, Cheap, and Good."  Today's selection is the Bible of home food preservation:  Putting Food By.  You can see my stained copy above.

If you have ever wanted to preserve food in any way, this is the book you need to talk you through the steps of doing it safely and emerging with a yummy product.  It is broken down by preservation method - canning, freezing, drying, and even salting and cellaring -- and then by fruit, vegetable, meat, or other product that you might want to preserve. 

I turn to this book every time I want to know how many minutes to process tomato sauce in quart jars in a water bath canner, how many minutes to blanch green beans for freezing, or whether it would be best to can, freeze, or dry any number of products from garden and farm market -- and how to know when they are safely preserved with the best flavor.  I have never tried the instructions for preserving meat, but I'm sure they are as helpful as those for fruit, veggies, and even gift products like wine jam.

My husband often jokes that if The End comes, one should watch for the people who are looting the hardware stores for tools and supplies and invite them to the hypothetical safe house; forget about those who are looting the big box electronics store for plasma TVs.   I will be watching out for those raiding the stores for canning lids and jars -- I'll bring my copy of Putting Food By, and I think we'll all be fine.

The Analysis

Fast:  It is a cliche, but this is truly the only food preservation guide you really need.  This is the one I recommend to beginners and experts alike. 

Cheap:  Just shy of $12 on Amazon.com, a new copy will pay for itself in your first season of preserving.  As a frugalista, I should tell you to check it out of the library, but the librarians will not appreciate getting it back covered in tomato sauce. 

Good:  In our house, this is called "The CYA Canning Manual" -- if you follow the authors' instructions, you are covered. 

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Strawberries!


Just got back from the "u-pick" strawberry farm yesterday, and I did not go a moment too soon.  The last day for u-pick is Wednesday, although area farms should still have strawberries for another week or two.  Depending on where you live, you may have a couple more weeks of u-pick strawberries, or you may be joining me in the wait for the next wave:  blueberries and blackberries.

Picking berries in the sunshine is one of the true treats of summer, so if you can find a farm that will let you do so, you will have a ton of fun, and you will save some money in the process.  Here are some reminders for when you go:

  • Expect to spend a couple of hours out there, so if you are the type that needs a hat or a long sleeve shirt, bring one.  (These things are called "frugal sunscreen.")
  • Bring your own containers.  If you do, the farm will weigh them, and you will pay just for the berries.  If not (I forgot yesterday), you will wind up paying for the box they give you.
  • Bring a picnic cooler and an ice pack to store your berries for the trip home.
  • Please handle the plants gently. If you are a novice, or if you have kids, this is a good time for a practice session with the first plant you encounter.  Hold the main plant with one hand and pull the berry with the other.  Otherwise, you will pull entire chunks of stem off, which is not good for the plant.  Later, you'll get your mojo going and learn how to do it with one hand.
  • The berries will keep for a few hours while you take a break, but do process them that night while they are full of sugar.
This year, I froze my berries because I still have plenty of jam and preserves from last year.  To do this, just trim the tops, and combine with about a half cup of sugar for every quart of berries, enough to coat but not overwhelm.  Put in a freezer container, label, and enjoy all winter!

The Analysis

Fast:  It depends on how you look at it.  Picking and processing strawberries eats up the whole day, but it is just one day out of the entire year of being able to pull berries out of the freezer for shortcake or smoothies.

Cheap:  Yes, actually.  I spent about $18 on 12 pounds of strawberries, which was about 8 quarts.  This works out to $2.25 a quart.  The same market had pre-picked on sale for $4 a quart, so I saved $1.75 a quart for picking myself.  It took two hours to pick, not including travel time, so I wound up saving $14 or $7 an hour, which is not a bad hourly rate considering it is tax free. 

I'm not even going to do the math comparing these berries to store-bought berries in the middle of winter, which is when I will consume them. 

Good:  Like so many homegrown treats, there is no comparison between store berries and ones you pick from the vine yourself. 
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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mojito Salmon





If you have been reading this blog for any amount of time, you already know of my love for mojitos.  What you may not know is that the basic set of mojito flavor -- lime, mint, sugar -- work well in a lot of culinary applications.

One of my favorite recipes is Mojito Salmon.  You will need:

1 package wild caught salmon (2 pieces at Trader Joe's were $6.22)
1 handful mojito mint* (I grow this in the garden)
Juice of 3-4 limes, or a comparable amount of bottled
Sea Salt
Fresh Ground pepper
Olive Oil
(You can add a bit of cane sugar if you prefer a sweeter marinade.)

Chop and crush the mint, and place on top of the thawed salmon.  Drizzle with olive oil and lime juice, then sprinkle with salt and pepper (and sugar if you wish).  Put in the fridge for a couple of hours so the flavors blend. 

Cook in a 350 oven until salmon is done, about 20-30 minutes according to the thickness of your pieces and how many you have in the pan. 

Meanwhile, cook rice.  I used Goya yellow rice ($1.79).  Top the rice with shredded garden greens and fresh garden peas.  Place the cooked salmon on top.  The heat from the salmon and rice will wilt the greens and warm the peas without really cooking them, so they maintain a crunch.

*I grow genuine mojito mint from Richter's.  You can make any mojito drink or dish with any available mint, but this mint has a deeper flavor and a bit less sweetness to it.  If you grow traditional spearmint, start all of your mojito projects with less cane sugar and adjust to your own taste.  I also freeze mojito mint the same way I do cilantro, and then I just thaw the mint and oil at the same time I do the salmon, then combine the whole mess along with the other ingredients to marinate.

The Analysis

Fast:  I can bang out this dinner in about 45 minutes, with much of that being baking time.  I am not counting the marinating time, because I'm really doing nothing at that point.

Cheap:  Other than garden inputs and spices on hand, I spent $8.01 for the rice and salmon.  Depending on how much of the other you need to buy, this dish probably comes in at $10.00, which is usually my upper limit for "nice dinner at home."  What you see above gave us two dinners and two small lunches.

Good:  Healthy, summery, and just a little bit Cuban in influence.  Mix up some actual mojitos to go alongside, and you are all set.   (I should share my mojito drink recipe, shouldn't I?)
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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lunch Al Desko


I have a shameful admission to make:  I just discovered guacamole.

It isn't my fault, really.  I am a product of my environment, and my environment growing up was a small Midwestern town in the 1980s.  We didn't have a Mexican restaurant terribly handy, and my family did not count Latin cuisine in its food heritage.  On top of that, the 1980s were known for the low-fat, low-protein, high-carb diet.  This diet theory held that you should fill up on carbs, which provide four calories per gram, and stay away from fat and protein, which provide nine.  Most diet books of the era said you could eat all the veggies you wanted, but whatever you did, you should stay away from the high-fat avocado.  Being an impressionable teen, I decided that I had never had avocados and was not about to start.

Fast forward to about a month ago, when I was sitting at a Mexican restaurant with my husband and some family.  As everyone ordered guacamole as an appetizer, prepared fresh at the table, I muttered to my husband that I didn't like guacamole.  In fact, I continued, I'd never had it.  Naturally, he urged me to take a bite.

Oh.  My. Goodness.  Why had no one told me about this before?  Why did no one ever make me eat it?  This stuff is friggin' awesome!

Once home, I did a little research, and I found that avocados may be full of fat, but it is healthy, monounsaturated fat that lowers blood cholesterol levels and balances the "good" versus "bad" cholesterol levels in your body.  Plus, it is a vegetable!  What could be wrong with a veggie, even a high fat one, in moderation?

I quickly developed my own guacamole recipe, which is perfect on a rice cake for "lunch al desko," those lunches you consume with one hand at your desk while you work (or blog...).  The whole lunch comes in at less than $1.25, which is actually fairly expensive for one of my lunches, but much less expensive than a fast food burger and far yummier.

Guacamole
1 ripe avocado (yielding to the touch) (4 for $2.99 for organic avocados means $0.75 each)
Juice of one lime (limes about $0.25 each, or you can substitute a splash out of a bottle)
1 spoonful salsa (for me, canned last year from the garden)
Sprinkle garlic powder (maybe 1/8t.)
Fresh ground pepper
Fresh ground sea salt
1 rice cake

Split avocado in half and remove the pit.  If you wait til the avocado is nice and ripe, you can pretty much squeeze it and have the pit pop out.  Remove the soft green flesh of the avocado and mash in a bowl until smooth. 

Ad salsa, lime juice, garlic powder, and salt and pepper.  Mix thoroughly, and heap on a rice cake.  Enjoy!

The Analysis

Fast:  This probably takes me 10 minutes from kitchen to desk.

Cheap:  The avocados are the big price-driver here.  Wait for sales, and make sure your avocados are fully ripe so you can get as much flesh as possible out of them.  Your budget concerns should limit your avocado consumption to the healthy range.  (Final cost:  south of $1.25)

Good:  You all know how good this is.  You just weren't telling me so you could keep the avocados to yourselves!
 
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