Thursday, July 29, 2010

Almost Frugal and Your Tip for the Day

Click here for my interview on Almost Frugal

First, my thanks today go out to Kelly at Almost Frugal, who published an interview with me in her regularly-occurring feature "This is What Frugal Looks Like."  I love Kelly's blog, and I especially love this feature, which demonstrates that frugality doesn't have to mean a life of monastic deprivation living off the grid and away from society (although it can, if that is your choice).  In fact, there are as many different ways to be frugal as people who consider themselves such.  Kelly does a remarkable job giving these various perspectives voice. round out today's column and give us a bit of a break from the gardening and cooking ideas that are so easy to focus on during summer, let me share a quick tip that saves time and money:  one-cloth cleaning.

A little history:  I am the type of person who likes to clean a room top to bottom.  I used to dust the walls (yes, I need an intervention), vaccuum the rugs, dust the furniture, and polish the metal and mirror (another intervention, please) before I would call a room "clean."

Then, I had a part-time job that required me to wake up before my husband.  I would get ready, sneak downstairs, and want to do some household chores before I left.  I couldn't vaccuum, because that would make too much noise, so I started doing one-cloth cleaning challenges on the main level of our house.

Basically, I would take a dust cloth, put on my dusting oil of choice, and see how far I could dust before the cloth was ready for more oil and the cloth was dirty.  That was it:  the cloth went in the laundry, and I stopped.  I did the same thing with reusable floor cleaning cloths by putting one on the old Swiffer handle, putting on whatever floor cleaning liquid I needed (or none, if I was dusting), and seeing how much dirt I could collect before the cloth was ready for the laundry basket.  Same thing with cleaning mirrors.  I do use paper towels for that, so I put my window cleaner on no more than two paper towels and see what I can get done.

I find that this approach keeps me from over-using any cleaning chemicals, because it eliminates the desire to re-wet a cloth every time you move from room to room.  It also limits paper towel use, for those times you choose to use them (I'm down to buying about two "bales" of paper towels a year, the equivalent of about one roll a month.)

And hubby slept through the whole thing.
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dried Tomatoes

When people talk about food preservation, they usually talk about canning and freezing.  These are two of the most entertaining, time-honored food preservation techniques, but they are also the newest.  What we call canning goes back to what used to be called bottling, when homemakers would place food in glassware and seal it with fat, cloth, dough, corks, or later parafin or canning lids.  Freezing is even newer in most locales, going back primarily to Clarence Birdseye and his work in getting consumers to accept frozen foods.  Prior to that, freezing really only was used in areas with naturally frozen areas, so places with permafrost or places where one could easily build an ice house, and it was not widely used for a complete range of products.

Even older, however, are cellaring and drying, both methods that control bacterial growth by using temperature or water content.  Drying is one of my favorites, because it requires almost no attention, and the end product is typically much smaller than the original food to be dried, a bonus when you are storing multiple crops.

The traditional way to dry foods is to hang them on a rack or place them in a solar drier.  Rack drying is great for herbs if you are processing them in small amounts, which is not true in my house; I regularly grow and store at least enough dried herbs to supply my family, my parents, and my in-laws.  Solar drying, which I haven't tried, appears to work best in areas with lower humidity than the Midwest.

That leaves the electric drier as your best option.  (You can use your oven on a low heat setting, but I dislike having the oven run all day.)  The one I use is a $40, five-tray model from Ronco (yes, that Ronco) that I bought at the local mega-mart about five years ago.  It works like a dream, and I figure since it is basically a low-wattage element at the bottom of a plastic bowl with trays on top, I should be able to keep the thing running more or less indefinitely.

What we have above is a tray of tomatoes waiting to be dried (plus some marjoram to round out this tray).  Dried tomatoes are one of the best products you can make in the summer, as the jars of "sundried tomatoes" are uber-expensive, and a few add a lot of flavor to dishes.  I like to chop up a handful and add to pizza and pasta dishes in the fall until they are gone.  There are never enough dried tomatoes.

To dry tomatoes:  Select salsa-type or other fleshy tomatoes.  Above, you can see I have used some salsa-type paste tomatoes (the ligher colored ones) and some black tomatoes (Black Truffle or Black Russian), the darker tomatoes.  Wash and cut into half inch rounds.  Place on dryer tray and salt with sea salt.  Then put them in the drier and wait.  Depending on the water content, it could take a day or two until they reach leathery consistency; flip them periodically to hastent the drying and keep them from sticking to the try.

Your drier does not need to run continuously; just unplug it at night or when you leave the house.  Store in a freezer container in the freezer, and pull out this winter when you need a concentrated burst of summer.

The Analysis

Fast:  Drying takes a while, but you don't have to participate very much.  It takes me about 5 minutes to cut tomatoes for drying and then store them on the other end. 

Cheap:  Dried tomatoes from your garden are very low cost, depending on cost of plant (mine were $2-3 depending on variety, so if I get at least two dozen tomatoes per plant, I am down to about 10 cents per tomato) and amount of electricity you use in drying (minimal).  By contrast, a small jar of dried tomatoes in oil is usually $3 or more.

Good:  Dried tomatoes are sweet, a little smokey or deep in flavor, and a few go a long way.  You really can never have enough.
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Salad Days

As I pull up my chair to my desk for another morning of writing while eating, it occurs to me that my lunch, which you see above, teaches us two important lessons about sustainability:

1.  Bounty is about what you have now, not what you think you need.  As you can see, my lunch plate is filled with cucumbers; if you aren't eating cucumbers at every meal in this house right now, you aren't doing your job!  But there are also red, yellow, and grape tomatoes, a couple strawberries, and some really nice salami.  With the exception of the salami, these are all products from the garden, and I didn't pay a thing for them beyond the sunk costs of deciding to grow the plants.  I can either complain and say "I wish I had more tomatoes by now," or I can say "thank heavens for the bounty of cucumbers that are filling up many a plate right now with basically free, healthy food."  (Disclosure:  I grew the cukes from seeds I had languishing in my seed box, for which I think I paid $1.50 per pack, so $3 worth of seed.  By now, I am well below 10 cents a cuke in seed costs.)

2.  The inexpensive stretchers are what allow you the little luxuries.  The above salami wasn't terribly cheap, but since I filled a plate with garden veggies, I can put a few slices of protein on the plate and still come in at a lunch cost of less than $1.  (This is always my goal for the main part of my lunch, although I may add a dessert.)  If you are enjoying the bounty of your garden right now, use that cost flexibility to allow yourself to try artisinal cheeses or specialty meats with them.  A bonus for me is that having one primarily-veg meal a day (avoiding adding things like bread or pasta) typically lets me shed a few pounds in summer.

The Analysis

Fast:  No cooking required with a meal that is garden veggies and some meat or cheese.

Cheap:  As I said, this plate is less than $1, a bargain for any budget.

Good:  Healthy, filling, and yummy.
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Monday, July 19, 2010

The Perfect Mojito

It is HOT in the Midwest, which means that it is time for the Caribbean's favorite cocktail:  the mojito.

A mojito is, at its most basic, a rum and club soda concoction flavored with mint and lime.  Occasionally, it will contain lime juice and cane sugar or syrup.  In our travels, we have discovered that the farther south one travels, the more likely one is to get a very dry mojito, without juice or sweetener.  In Maryland, we had some delicious mojitos that were more like really sweet rum soda pop than anything else; hit the Southernmost key in the union, and a mojito is very likely to be more along the lines of a gin and tonic, with the garnishes flavoring the mix as they sit and combine. 

With much experimentation for the benefit of you, my dear reader, I believe I have come upon the Perfect Mojito.  You will need:

2 oz white rum (I prefer Ten Cane)
2 oz club soda
2 oz lime juice (look for Nellie and Joe's Key West Lime Juice)
2 oz simple syrup (Make your own:  it is a 1:1 combo of cane sugar and water.  Heat until combined and keep a jar in the fridge.)
1 lime (Key limes are best, but you can use Persian limes in a pinch, as I did above.)
2 sprigs mojito mint (Grow your own from Richters, or use spearmint if you must.)

In a rocks glass, muddle the lime (cut in half and retain a slice for garnish) and one sprig of the mojito mint.  You  need to muddle, or crush, these elements to release the oils from the lime skin and the flavor of the mint.  Mojito mint, as I have mentioned, is a more robust, less sweet Cuban mint that gives a more authentic flavor.

Add the rum, lime juice, simple syrup, and club soda, and mix.  Garnish with the remaining lime wedge and sprig of mint.

Enjoy, and dream of the tropics!

The Analysis

Fast:  If you have all your inputs in one place, you should be able to mix this pretty quickly.  If you need to make mojitos for a party, cut your limes ahead of time and keep your mint sprigs in a glass of water.  Mix the club soda, lime juice, and simple syrup ahead of time in a pitcher, then add the rum individually to the cocktails.

Cheap:  Um, no.  A bottle of Ten Cane is north of $35.00 around here, and this is before you buy the premium lime juice and start growing your own mint.  The cocktail above is easily $3-4 in ingredients, which is about half the price for which you can get them in local restaurants and is far less than the $10-12 for a mojito in Key West, which is usually made with far-cheaper Bacardi or Mount Gay rum.  There is, however, that beach element that makes it worthwhile.  However, for those of us trapped north of Cayo Hueso, I am not going to recommend any but the finest mojito I know how to mix!

Good:  Yes.  Oh, yes.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Sustainable Bookshelf: Grandma's Wartime Kitchen

By the time WWII rolled around, an entire generation of homemakers had a Great Depression's worth of experience dealing with the challenges of putting nutritious meals on the table and in the lunchbox without breaking the bank.  Add in the challenges of rationing, preserving the product of a victory garden, and making treats that could ship to a serviceman halfway around the world, and you can see that these women had to amass quite an arsenal of culinary tricks to fight the war on the homefront.

These tips and tricks are just as relevant today for those of us embracing the sustainable lifestyle.  My next entry into "the sustainable bookshelf" is Grandma's Wartime Kitchen, a book that gets nearly constant use in my house as canning season swings into full production.  The "Cultivate and Can" chapter alone is reason to buy this book, but it offers much more, including a selection of desserts that travel well and use sweeteners other than the then-rationed white sugar, a section on stretching meats, and a number of vintage recipes and historical annecdotes that give you inspiration for ways to stretch and save while feeding your family.

As we build our sustainable bookshelf, I will be recommending books like this, which I would want to own rather than borrow from a library in order to feel truly prepared for independent living.  Who knows, maybe this year is the year I take inspiration from one WWII bride who found a way to make stuffed peppers using ground Spam!

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Orecchiette Au Gratin with Farm-Fresh Corn, Leeks, and Sage

OK, we are deep into cooking fresh from the garden, and recently I made orecchiette au gratin withe farm-fresh corn, leeks, and sage.  (Feel free to call it "mac and cheese with corn" if you have a picky eater; otherwise, with the other title, you can charge $12 a plate for it!)

This is a great way to use some of the fresh corn from the farmer's market as well as the leeks that are starting to be ready.  The introduction of the veggies means that you get to use less cheese, making it a lighter and less expensive dish.  I did splurge on orecchiette pasta; literally meaning "little ears," these shapes are the perfect little bowls to hold the cheese sauce and corn while you eat.  If you are seriously on a budget, try for a corkscrew or medium shell, which will do the same thing.

Orecchiette Au Gratin with Farm-Fresh Corn, Leeks, and Sage
2-3 ears corn, cut from the cob
1-2 small leeks, cut and "split" so the little rings come apart
1 box orecchiette
1.5 cups whole milk
1 cup cheddar cheese
1 T flour
2 T sage
3/4 cup stuffing mix

Blanch your corn and cut off the cob while you are dicing leeks and boiling pasta to the al dente stage.  Meanwhile, make your cheese sauce:

Melt cheese in milk over low heat.  Add sage.  2 T is a lot, and I use that much because my family likes it, and because I have a surplus of dried sage from the garden.  You may want to start with 1 T and work your way up if you are unsure.  One note is that the sage gives "mac n cheese" dishes a very meaty flavor, so this is a good option if you are trying to coax a meat eater to join you in a vegetarian meal.  Right before assembling the dish, add the flour for thickening and stir until thick and smooth.

Combine pasta, veggies, and cheese sauce in a casserole dish.  Top with a crushed handful (about 3/4 cup) of stuffing mix.  (You can use bread crumbs or cracker crumbs if you prefer, but I find many store brands of bread crumbs have HFCS.  Make your own if you prefer, or use stuffing mix for a bit of an herby kick to the topping.)

Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly.

The Analysis

Fast:  You should be able to put this vegetarian meal on the table in under an hour, with much of it being cooking time.

Cheap:  Garden and farmer's market veggies and a crumb toppping mean you have to use less expensive cheese than you do for straight "mac n cheese."  Cut costs further by not being seduced by the specialty pasta shapes, as I was!
Good:  This has a gentle herb flavor and some crunch from the corn, leeks, and topping.  It is a nice change from the heavier pasta dishes and makes a ton! (About 5 servings, I would estimate.)
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Thursday, July 8, 2010

More Veggies in Less Space: The Cucumber Trellis

Every year, DH and I budget for a garden improvement or two.  In this way, our vegetable production space has grown from a small, unfenced patch that we had nine years ago to a large fenced space, supported by a container garden and five ancillary spaces and raised beds.

Last year was kind of a low-budget, high DIY year in which we nearly doubled the primary garden space, a task that involved a lot of sod cutting.  However, we did buy a couple of the cucumber trellises that you see above.  Ours are from Gardener's Supply, but you could fairly easily make your own; they are basically a trellis in front supported by legs in the bag and held in the ground with garden staples (not included).  It would be a pretty easy project, but we were in the throes of cutting so much sod that it seemed like a good investment.

And it has been.  The cucumber trellis (it also works well for peas, beans, and other vining veggies) allows the cucumber vines to grow up the front, keeping the majority of the fruit off the ground, safe from critters and decomposition.  It also allows the fruit to hang down straight, which means cucumbers are easier to fit in pickle jars.  Because the vines are held up off the ground with good air circulation, they are less likely to contract molds that will kill the plant, and if they do, they do a better job of fighting it off. 

It is hard to quantify vegetable production year to year, but I had cucumbers for about a month longer than I usually do, and I believe I was typically harvesting more at a time.  A valuable bonus is that the vines crawling up the trellis create a shaded spot underneath (if you have positioned the trellis correctly), so you can grow lettuces and cool season small crops underneath even in the hot weather, further increasing your yeild. 

I left the trellises out in the garden all winter, and they weathered beautifully.  At about $60 for two (including shipping), depending on your love of cucumbers and pickles, I estimate these could pay for themselves in two or three years.
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Monday, July 5, 2010

Red, White, and Blue Potatoes

I am not the type to make specific foods colored for certain holidays (those red, white, and blue Jell-o parfaits from the 1970s make me cringe), but this Fourth of July I made a dish that is a riff on holiday colors to illustrate two points about sustainable living.  First, the recipe:

Red, White, and Blue Potatoes
6 red skin potatoes, sliced thin
3 blue potatoes, sliced thin
2 ears corn, cut from cob
1 onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup shredded parmesan
1 handful fresh thyme
A few grinds black pepper and sea salt

Preheat oven to 350.  Boil water and throw in ears of corn to blanch so you can more easily cut them off the cob.  This is not a true food preservation blanching -- you just want a little cooking to soften things up.

While the corn is blanching, cut your red skin potatoes and form in a layer in a small baking dish (a couple of spritzes of olive oil on the bottom will keep things from sticking).  Then, in a bowl, cut the corn off the cob, and combine with onion, garlic, 3/4 cup of parmesan, chopped thyme, and salt and pepper.  Mix well and put on top of the potato layer.  Add another layer of red skin and blue potato slices and the remaining cheese.  Bake for 45 minutes or until cheese is melted and potatoes are soft.  I covered mine with foil for about 25 mintues and then took the foil off -- save it to cover the dish in the fridge if you have leftovers.

Lesson One
Our first lesson is that sustainable living is about making do with what you have, not starting with what you want and procuring the inputs.  That is, I had red skin potatoes and corn from the farmer's market, onions in the pantry, and blue potatoes and thyme in the garden.  I figured out how to cook them all to be sure they would not go to waste. 

However, I don't really want you going out and trying to buy all of these ingredients (unless they are all at your local farmer's market).  Sustainability isn't about opting not to make a dish because you need a quarter teaspoon of lemon zest (and I have been guilty of the equivalent of going out and buying a bag of lemons and a zester to make this happen, just as everyone does from time to time).  Sustainability is about using your current bounty.  I could have made this dish equally well with any hearty veggies I could bake and pretty much any cheese or herbs.  For example, try:
  • Eggplant (I think; I haven't tried this)
  • Zucchini
  • Leeks
  • Paste tomatoes
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Cheddar
  • Mozzarella
I'm sure this is just a partial list.  For example, even though I love the corn in this iteration, I don't really need it:  zucchini and onion bakes up just as well with dried sage and cheddar.

Lesson Two
Get outside the traditional supermarket, and you will find many variations on standard veggies that will improve your diet.  Blue potatoes, which I grew this year because they are pretty and they are hard to find elsewhere, have some of the same phytochemicals that make blueberries blue.  These phytochemicals may be neccessary for optimum health, but it is tough to find a blue food beyond berries and eggplant. 

So, if you have a family member who likes only potatoes, you can improve their intake of a variety of phytochemicals by including blue, red skin, yellow, and fingerling potatoes in addition to plain brown bakers.  Carrots come in orange, yellow, white, and red (their original color, some say).  Tomatoes come in yellow, red, green, and deep purple, among other colors.  This is not an argument to limit one's veggie consumption but rather to broaden it by exploring a well-loved category.  And hey, once you talk your fussy potato-lover into a blue potato, he may be willing to try a blueberry.

The Analysis

Fast:  This dish takes about 20 minutes of prep (a little more if you are out sticking your hands in the potato hills, like I was) and about 45 minutes to bake.

Cheap:  This depends greatly on how much you have to buy.  I'd say I spent about $3 since I had to buy a few farmer's market potatoes and ears of corn, an onion, and some cheese.  Later in the season, the only thing I'll be buying is the cheese. 

Good:  I think this makes a great grill-out side dish; if you are mostly-vegetarian like me, this is a hearty main dish.
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Thursday, July 1, 2010

It's Garlic Time!

Behold, my first garlic harvest!

Well, most of it, anyway.  Three heads had already made their way into the kitchen.  But here you go:  from two packages of "seed" garlic, I was able to grow 36 head of garlic.  Best of all, I was able to grow the garlic in a strip of land that had previously been a real wasteland:  it was full of construction debris from when the house was built 40 years ago, had very thin soil, and really only wanted to grow nettles.  Any attempts to grow anything else -- tomatoes, zucchini, or sunflowers -- ended either in plant death from malnutrition or a really good breakfast for the rabbits.  And one attempt to grow breadseed poppies -- for lemon poppyseed bread, I swear! -- wound up teaching me more than I wanted to know about how rabbits would have fared in the 1960s.  Let's just say that one year, I had a semi-tame rabbit called "Jerry," after Mr. Garcia.

Anyway, I planted my seed garlic last October, and it responded by sending up little shoots that lived until the soil froze.  They wintered beautifully and were the first bits of green in the garden.  When the tops started to bend over and dry, I figured out it was time to pull the garlic. 

I let the garlic cure on the outside patio for a few days, then cut the tops.  I was going to do a beautiful country-style garlic braid, but I realized I had so much garlic that hanging a braid in the pantry would result in it sprouting (from the warmth), and leaving it hang unprotected "down cellar" in our lower level would let it get dusty.  So, I sewed a drawstring bag from the back half of an old pillowcase (I wanted to keep the embroidery on front), and my garlic is now safely hanging "down cellar," ready for me to reach in and get a head any time I need one in the kitchen.

One error:  In my enthusiasm to order seed garlic last year, I neglected to note whether I had purchased a hybrid or an heirloom, so I don't know if I can use this as seed garlic.  I will order an heirloom variety this year, so in the future I can use a couple of heads to start the next year's crop.

The Analysis

Fast:  Maybe not fast, per se, but definitely low effort.  DH and I spent 20 minutes last October shoving cloves of seed garlic into the ground, and that was the last thing I did to the garlic patch until I pulled the crop.

Cheap:  I didn't keep my receipt from the seed garlic (sorry...) but I know that 6 heads of seed garlic cost about the same as 6 heads of "cooking" garlic from the store.  So, I got 6 times the garlic that I would have had I bought it in the store. 

Good:  Garlic and onions are two of the things that keep me from going crazy in the winter from wanting fresh veggies.  And cellaring is the ultimate in cheap food storage:  just pull the crop, cure it, and take it downstairs.  Easy!
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