Friday, December 30, 2011

Sustainable Living Goals for 2012

I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions.  They tend to be very general and very predictable.  Let's just stipulate that, in any given year, I'd like to lose weight, stop some bad habit or other, and generally be a better person by the end of the year.  Let us also stipulate that I have a kitchen full of Christmas cookies that will delay the first resolution, and that the other two will fall prey to perfectionism or seasonal affective disorder by February 1.

On the other hand, I love setting goals!  Goals are tangible, specific, measurable, and allow you to make progress even if you don't totally meet them.  So, in that spirit, let me present my sustainable living goals for 2012:

To Be More Frugal/Sustainable:
  1. I want to bake more bread.  I had a craving recently for store-bought refrigerator-section rolls, so that has been the bread of choice around here for a while.  But now it is back to the whole-wheat, flax-enriched, cheapie homemade stuff that tastes better anyway.
  2. I want to get more deliberate about weeding my book collection and selling unwanted volumes to the local used book store.  I need the space and always want the money.
  3. I am in the process of cleaning out my craft stash, which is giving me the supplies for a number of projects including a couple of quilts I am piecing.  These will either be gifts or for our use, but they will be much cheaper if I use what is on hand.
  4. I intend to do a better job stocking up on sugar and flour, including exploring frugal ways of grinding my own grain. Right now, I tend to stock up during seasonal sales, which means that if a weather or similar emergency came around, I may or may not have enough flour and sugar on hand to support continued baking and food preservation until normalcy was restored.
  5. We plan to expand the garden by a few feet to better take advantage of the sunniest spot in our back yard while reducing an awkward place to mow.
To Improve My Skills:
  1. I need to fix whatever is wrong with my mozzarella cheese technique and then start making our mozzarella more regularly.  I'm signed up for a class in February and hope that helps.  Until now, I thought it was the milk I was using, but I'm starting to think it is bad technique.
  2. I want to learn more about foraging for edible greens and the like.  I did pretty well last year, but I would like to continue this year.
  3. I want to explore more ways to extend the gardening season.  I am particularly interested in finding some cold-tolerant, shade-tolerant plants that will not just survive on 6 hours of winter sun in the sunroom but actually thrive.
  4. I plan to grow eggplants for the first time this year.
  5. To continue my exploration of medicinal herbs, I need to learn more about strengths, applications, and delivery methods. This might mean sorting out once and for all the difference among an infusion, a decoction, and a tincture. It also means figuring out which herbs you dry, which you stick in a bottle of vodka, and which you make into a tea.
  6. I plan to finally learn how to make sausage in natural casings.  If I get ambitious, I might explore smoking (sausages, that is).
  7. I plan to make more of my own clothes to improve my sewing skills.  I have wanted to be a better seamstress for a while, and now is the time to learn.
For This Blog:
  1. I want to write a series on prepping.  As you may have noticed, this blog is part of the Survival Mom Blog ring; if you follow the ring, you will learn a lot about prepping for emergencies and societal shifts large and small.  However, I would like to explore how this fits with suburban sustainability and hopefully give you some ideas for how to start prepping in your own life.
  2. I plan to pursue turning Fast, Cheap, and Good into a book-length project!  (I have some ideas, but editors, call me!  :-)  )
To Improve My Life:
  1. This might be my only true "resolution," so I'll share it with you to hold myself accountable:  Ration the social media usage!  I think Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like are all wonderful.  But they can be an enormous time-sink, and worse than that, the constant barrage of everyone reporting on everything about their lives sometimes overwhelms me.  I want this information, but I need to control how often I consume it so that I can live my life and still enjoy hearing about others' lives.
What sustainable living goals are you setting for 2012?
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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: December

Welcome to the last installation of "How Much Does a Garden Grow" for 2011.  The important message here is I'M STILL GARDENING IN DECEMBER!  This is not an accomplishment I've ever achieved before, so even though the monthly harvest was small, I am proud.

First, the experimental tomato plant, which I dragged container-and-all into the sunroom in October, finally gave up due to aphids and cold weather and old age.  I know I have aphids in my garden; they are never a problem, because they seem to be regulated by whatever their natural predator is.  That predator wasn't in the sunroom.  Yet, the plant seemed relatively unbothered until a few days ago when the temps in the room dropped to around 50, and the plant gave up.

I got 5 oz. of green tomatoes off that plant before I left it to take to compost, which is 93 cents worth retail (as best as I can tell).  It is also a tremendous victory, because who else in Ohio is picking tomatoes two days after Christmas?

Additionally, I picked a couple of ounces of leeks, which are still doing well, and a couple of ounces of chard and lettuce.  Let's call that $3 worth of produce.

So, my estimate for the month was half a pound of produce for a retail value of $3.93.

Otherwise, we are getting by just fine on canned and frozen produce.  We've eaten all of the dried tomatoes and nearly all of the potatoes and onions, so we may have to start supplementing from the store soon.  But, as you might remember, January starts our tally afresh, like any good business.  The seed catalogs started arriving this week, so now my 2012 challenge is to keep my gardening business more solvent than most countries' governments.  Wait, I need a harder goal than that.....

2011 Tally to Date: 127.19 lbs of crops; $253.29 saved
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Friday, December 23, 2011

Have a Merry Sustainable Christmas

Every year since I was a child, I have picked a favorite ornament on the tree, an ornament that I would hang in a prominent place and look at several times over the season.  Often, it was a simple blue glass bulb of the kind that was sold for a dozen at 69 cents when my parents were first married and decorating their first tree; I would hang it on the bottom branch of the tree and lie under it, looking up at my reflection framed by all the Christmassy wonder. 

Sometimes, it was an ornament that I felt reflected the true meaning of the season.  I have a particularly lovely acrylic ornament portraying a manger scene that was given to me by one of my aunts when I was a child, and it was often this almost-overly-sweet portrayal of the first Christmas that drew pride of place.

Other years, favorites reflected interest and whimsy.  I sometimes pick an ornament from the series issued by my alma mater, choosing a sparkly brass portrayal of a favorite dorm or academic building, touching the memories of my years at Miami University every time I spin the ornament in the lights.  Or, I love to look at the series of ballroom dance ornaments that my parents are giving Mr. FC&G and I, thinking about how our dancing is such a tremendous metaphor for our marriage;  a true partnership, where both people have important jobs to do, neither tries to take the role of the other, and both contribute to making something beautiful.

And, of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without a chuckle at the set of four ornaments from my mother-in-law.  These ornaments depict a toy train apparently constructed from wood and "live" farm animals.  The look on the cow's face -- clearly, "what the heck just happened here?" -- makes me laugh every time.

This year, though, I keep going back to the ornament above.  My Grandma Rosemary, my father's mother, gave me this ornament celebrating the 1976 Bicentennial in 1975, when all of the items commemorating the country's 200th birthday started becoming available.  She passed away in 1976, so this is really the last meaningful gift I remember her giving me.  It captures such a specific moment in time -- the nearly-unbearable excitement of Christmas and a Bicentennial (whatever that was) all rolled into one package of childish glee, the wonder of having an ornament meant just for me, the nooks and contours of the house that Rosemary and her father, my great-grandfather Pop, used to live in.  The poignancy of a moment before I knew that there was such as thing as losing a loved one. 

All of these wonderful memories, like small truffles constructed not of sugar but of emotion, are available to me every time I look at my tree.  In many ways, this is to me the most sustainable practice of all.  Instead of insisting on an all-new display with shiny ornaments that perfectly match the decor, I have little time capsules of all the best moments of my life, available for my enjoyment.  I wouldn't trade this for all the newness and trendiness in the world. 

Wishing you and yours a holiday season filled with memories, the most renewable resource of all.

Jennifer and Mr. FC&G
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Monday, December 19, 2011

Do What You Would Anyway: Secrets of a VPT Job

It is the holiday season, which means that the sustainability and frugality blogosphere is full of discussions of whether to tighten our belts or find ways to earn more money for gift-giving.  This is, of course, an individual choice.  And while I'm never going to tell you to live outside your means, there are times (holidays and vacations come to mind) when we all would like to extend our means just a little bit.

That means more money.

Here at FC&G, we spend most of our time trying to live within the resources that we have.  Often that is money, but it is often also resources like food or energy or time.  But we also talk about extending those resources, such as when we grow more veggies in a small space.  And I want to talk today about my theory on earning more money the FC&G way.

As you all know, Mr. FC&G and I run Carrot Creations, our shop dedicated to providing sustainable living gear that we hand-make.  As you also know, I have a full-time job with Hilltop Communications and the second-shift job at the college.  Mr. FC&G is similarly over-extended.  About the last thing we need is another job, but I love Carrot Creations.

Last week, the store made its 52nd sale for the year (not all of them appear on the Etsy tally, if you are checking up on me, because we sell face-to-face too), which averages one sale a week. Although many people sell much more, I am very happy with this, and here are some of my keys to success of a very-part-time (VPT) money making endeavor:

Make it something you would do anyway:  I love to crochet, knit, and sew fleece.  I would do it regardless of whether it would sell.  I have made many dozen pairs of fleece socks for myself, Mr.. FC&G, and family.  Having a way to sell these items gives me an excuse to make them without feeling guilty that I'm just buying lots of fleece and yarn to make items we don't really need.  The work doesn't feel like a job, someone else gets cozy feet and lower heating bills, and I make a couple of bucks.  It feels like a win-win.

Make it scalable:  Your VPT money maker can't hold you down, or it destroys your quality of life.  If I have a lull in either my writing work or the second shift, I can make socks and cowls to my heart's content and have them ready for future sales.  If I am swamped, I can ignore the production side and just ship orders.  If I'm on vacation, I can close the store.  Carrot Creations doesn't hamper our lifestyle. 

If making hand-made items isn't your thing, remember that there are a number of scalable and temporary part-time jobs out there.  More than once, I have had part-time jobs that involved subbing for regular staff, so the organization would call me when needed and I could say yes or no to the shift according to my own schedule.  I have also long intended to one year try a seasonal job, like a Christmas retail job or an Easter ham store job.  Some people regularly work the polls on election day and otherwise take one-day jobs.  If you look, these little jobs are out there.

Make it part of your dream:  Yes, many of us occasionally hit a point at which all income, even little extras, needs to be earmarked for living expenses.  But if yours doesn't, don't be afraid to tie your efforts with your VPT job to a dream.  Put the profits in a vacation fund, a home-improvement fund, or even your garden seed fund.  It is so much fun to get to buy one of these treats without dipping into your regular income, and it makes it that much more enjoyable to work your VPT job.

What do you do for a little extra income?
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Butternut Squash = Ricotta

As you know, this was my first year for butternut squash, and I had a great harvest.  Now, with more than a dozen of the little beauties safely cellared downstairs, it is time to start eating the bounty.

The problem is, neither Mr. FC&G nor I come from a food culture that typically uses squash.  Squash did not appear regularly on either of our tables growing up, so we don't have the intrinsic understanding how the vegetable is used.  This is in contrast to things like tomatoes, where we know exactly how they taste raw and cooked and have lots of ideas about the ways they can be used.  But butternut squash is kind of a mystery, beyond whipped squash, which we have tried (and found yummy) and soup, which we have not.

Enter lasagna!  The thought occurred to me that squash is relatively bland, kind of soft when cooked, and takes on the flavor of what you put into it.  Therefore, in my mind, it is ricotta cheese! 

To add a little of this very-nutritious veggie to my meal, I took my standard lasagna recipe, which has a layer that is made of ricotta, egg, some spices, and some Parmesan cheese.  I replaced this with:

3 small squash, halved and baked in a shallow pan of water until the flesh is soft
2 cloves garlic, chopped
fresh ground black pepper
a small handful Swiss chard, chopped
1/2 cup Parmesan

Seed your squash, bake it, and remove the flesh.  Mash it up until it is a soft texture, then add the remaining ingredients.  Use this as the ricotta layer in your favorite recipe, and proceed as usual.

I really found the results very tasty, and I know I got some extra veggies in my diet and some expenses out of my budget.

The Analysis

Fast:  Baking the squash is an extra step that takes some time, so this is a good weekend recipe.  Then again, baking the squash takes no more time than making fresh ricotta, so it is a wash in that respect.

Cheap:  Obviously, cellared squash with homegrown garlic and chard is way cheaper than buying ricotta and eggs.  Fewer calories, too.

Good:  The squash really took on the flavors of the garlic and pepper without tasting vegetable-y at all.  I think this one is a winner.
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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thai Basil Salmon and Swiss Chard

I'm not really a huge fan of Asian-inspired flavors in  my cooking, preferring instead to use Mediterranean and Cuban influences.  However, I am a big fan of Thai basil, and I grew a beautiful huge plant in the herb garden in 2010, enough for fresh Thai basil all summer as well as a stock of dried and frozen.  The last of the frozen basil in oil was in the freezer, so it was time to experiment with a way of using it.

This recipe takes inspiration from my mojito salmon.  As you can see, prices of wild-caught Alaskan salmon have really gone up; I think this package came in around $8 for two pieces.  I still think it is a worthwhile centerpiece to the meal, especially since everything else came from the spice cabinet or the garden.

Thai Basil Salmon and Swiss Chard
1 package wild-caught Alaskan Salmon (2 fillets)
1/2 pint Thai basil chopped and frozen in oil (or a comparable amount of fresh, plus some olive oil for the pan)
curry powder
smoked sea salt
baby Swiss chard (from the sunroom)

Place the salmon fillets in a pan and sprinkle with curry powder and smoked sea salt.  Plop the frozen Thai basil in.  If you are using fresh basil, you will want to put a dollop of oil in the pan and then place the chopped basil on top of the seasoned fish.

Bake at 350 until done, about 30 minutes for the fillets I used.  Reach in the oven once in a while and stir the Thai basil around and make sure it is coated with oil and sitting nicely on top of the fish.  This keeps the basil hydrated and makes it wilt rather than dry out and get crispy and burnt.  When done, place each fillet on top of chopped baby Swiss chard, being sure to dress both fish and chard with the now-baked Thai basil, and serve.

The Analysis

Fast:  I love baked fish dishes because you just season the fish and stick it in the oven.  Fish goes so well over greens that we often omit the starch for these meals.

Cheap:  Fish prices are on the rise, but I basically got one large serving and a couple of small ones out of this package of salmon, which was around $8.

Good:  To me, this was just the right hint of curry and Thai basil to suggest Asian flavors but not overwhelm.  If you love the Asian flavor profiles, you can go all-out with more curry and some roasted chiles.
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Monday, December 5, 2011

Should You Go Vegetarian to Save Money?

I recently came across this article on the online edition of Good, a highly entertaining and thought-provoking publication.  In it, the author looks at a comparison by LearnVest of four different diets:  meat-eating, pescetarian, vegetarian, and vegan.  The idea is to find out if one diet is appreciably cheaper than another.

On the face of it, there is a marked difference.  Meat-eating comes in at $14.65 per day, while veganism comes in at $11.15, a difference of $3.50 per day.  If you are not new to frugality (and you probably aren't if you've been reading this blog for a while), you can see that this seems an obvious latte-sized change in your diet that could save $105 a month.

But wait.  Let's look at the diets a little closer.  One fault of the actually-pretty-helpful chart is that it assumes that an individual will eat according to their philosophy at every meal.  That is, the meat eater wants an egg and three strips of bacon at breakfast, while the vegan is having oatmeal and blueberries.  That alone accounts for $0.95 difference between the meal plans, and it points out the value of making your decisions meal by meal.

Let's take me as an example.  Philosophically, I'm a meat eater.  I don't have a moral problem with eating meat, particularly if I know that the animal was treated as well as possible during its life (which means allowing cows to eat grass and chickens to eat bugs, but that is another blog post).  (If you have a philosophical issue with eating animals, then I respect that, and clearly this is not the meal-planning category for you.)

However, if I am philosophically a meat-eater, I certainly am not one in practice.  Although I will eat any cured, spiced meat from any culture, the opportunity doesn't really arise that much. The last time I had three strips of bacon for breakfast was in July, when we were on vacation and planning to walk all day and negate the calories.  In reality, my eating practice is much more vegetarian, with some days of pescetarian behavior. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I find many things attractive about veganism, but I just like cheese too much.  Sorry, that's shallow, but that's reality.  Cheese, honey, and chicken stock are all important parts of my diet, and I can't give them up.  (Full disclosure:  for health and philosophical reasons, I buy hormone-free cheeses and raw honey, and I make my own chicken stock.)

So where does that put me, if I am a diet-budget guinea pig?  Well, our chart would indicate that I'm hovering somewhere in the $12.50 per day range most of the time, balanced out with some days of meat eating and some days of accidental veganism.

But let me tell you this:  If I spend $12.50 a day on my own, individual meals other than on vacation, I would be horrified.  I've been tracking the expenditures here on the microfarm, and Mr. FC&G and I regularly spend between $11 and $14 (conveniently, the approximate boundaries of this study) per day on groceries for the two of us, and that counts paper products and health/beauty supplies.  Mr. FC&G is a regular meat-eater, too, and we generally buy grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, and free-range, organic eggs.

To me, that indicates a big take-away from this study that is not obvious on first blush.  First, yes, you can positively impact your budget by staying away from the high-dollar proteins, which are generally meats.  Heck, if you are a meat-eater who has to have animal protein at every meal, you can just omit the bacon at breakfast five days out of seven and save $32 a month.  Use that savings to lay in some grass-fed ground beef at $5 per pound (the price around here), and you will have six pounds of much healthier meat to put on your table. 

More important, however, is the role that gardening and bulk purchasing plays in the diet.  Even with a pretty pathetic garden harvest this year, we have been able to eat many of our meals with the addition of garden produce that is worth, on a retail basis, much more than the inputs it took to grow it.  Add to that the economy of making larger batches of anything you cook (I'll bet I can make a fajita of any kind for less than the $5.80 they budget for the tofu version), and you have some real grocery savings.

So should you go vegetarian to save money?  Maybe.  Maybe you should have one day a week that is vegetarian; that's what the Meatless Monday movement is all about.  Maybe it should be one meal a day; no one needs that much bacon!  But whatever your philosophy, it appears that the best way to save money is to cook at home (and from scratch as much as possible), buy responsibly-produced products in bulk (whatever that means for your family), and grow what you can.  From a financial standpoint, these are the real money-savers.  Whether you want lox on your bagel then becomes a matter of taste and philosophy.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: November

In keeping with our new business-style accounting model for the garden, it is time to look at how much my microfarm garden grew in November:

What a difference a season makes!  Instead of bringing in veggies by the basket-full (no matter how pathetic this growing year was), I am now bringing them in in sprinkles.  My harvest for the month:

4 oz of medium leeks:  $0.50 per ounce, total $2.00
1/2 jar of dried thyme:  $1.65 equivalent
about a salad-worth of lettuce:  $1.00

Total:  $4.65

Actually, I am rather proud of this.  The funny-looking cold frame that Mr. FC&G built is doing a bang-up job of protecting the leeks (and probably scaring the neighbors); I saw the other day that I actually have new, thin little leeks coming up.  The leeks that I pull have definitely grown.

Also, a rather warm snap in November let the thyme plant keep putting out new growth, so I harvested a bunch and dried it, which I typically don't do in the winter.  But this was clearly new growth, so I didn't feel like I was taking much away from the plant.

Finally, keeping lettuce in the sunroom means that we can have an occasional fresh salad or bed for our fish.  That is nice.

And just because we haven't harvested a lot doesn't mean we are neglecting our veggies.  We have shifted to eating our canned and frozen veggies this month, with the end result that we really haven't purchased any fruit or vegetables in November.  I'll take it.

2011 Tally to Date: 126.69 lbs of crops; $249.36 saved
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Monday, November 28, 2011

Roasted Blue Potato Salad

I'm not usually a fan of potato salad, but I have recently developed a recipe I really like, based on tips from several recipes I consulted.  This is a great way to show off those garden potatoes you have down cellar, and the best thing is that it can be served hot, room temp, or cold, which makes it a great recipe for taking to those get-togethers where you aren't sure if you will have oven access when you get there.  (Note:  The dressing does contain mayo, so I'm not telling you to leave this sitting out all day.  Decide if you will be able to heat the potatoes and dress it onsite, or if you will be taking a chilled dish, and plan accordingly.)

Roasted Blue Potato Salad

8-12 blue potatoes (you can sub in some Yukon Golds or another "normal" color if you like), diced
2 medium leeks, diced
1 sprig rosemary, chopped
1 pat pasture butter

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix all ingredients and bake until potatoes are soft, stirring occasionally.

In the meantime, mix the dressing:
1/2 cup organic mayo
1/2 cup lime juice
1 T mustard -- dijon or plain

When potatoes are ready, dress with the dressing.  Serve.

The Analysis

Fast:  This recipe takes about 45 minutes, most of which is baking time.

Cheap:  I depend on cellared potatoes, still-growing leeks, and rosemary from the front window to make it practically free.

Good:  It reheats well and is great for a hot lunch for me and a cold snack for Mr. FC&G.  Yum!
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I would like to wish all the readers of Fast, Cheap, and Good a Happy Thanksgiving!  I am truly thankful for your participation in our journey this year and hope you will be with us in the months and years to come.

To celebrate the season, I would like to offer my readers a discount at our Etsy store, Carrot Creations.  Just use the code BLACKFRIDAY2011 at checkout to receive 10% off your order, good through Monday, November 28.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Mr. FC&G's Hot Toddies

Well, it was inevitable.  I caught Mr. FC&G's cold.  It makes sense; we share everything, and that includes the germs.

Luckily, Mr. FC&G was on the mend by the time I caught it, and he was ready with warm knee thingies in the bed and multiple birthday cakes, since I got sick on my birthday and consequently couldn't eat my cake as fast as he could "help" me.  (Gotta love a man that keeps making cake to be sure that you are satisfied!)  And, best of all, he made hot toddies.

I don't know what it was about this simple recipe, but every time he made me a toddy, I felt better and better.  I think we have decided to keep making and drinking toddies all winter, just to be sure we stay in tip-top health.

Mr. FC&G's Hot Toddy
1 mug herbal tea (I like chai tea for this)
raw honey to taste
scant 1/2 shot whiskey

Mix all ingredients in a mug and drink while hot.  Repeat as needed.

The Analysis

Fast:  This takes no longer to make than a mug of tea, so pretty speedy.

Cheap:  Frankly, I have no idea if this is cheaper than Nyquil or a similar over the counter medicine.  I do know that it worked better for me than do most of those cold meds.

Good:  I felt so much better after each of these toddies, all warm and pretty energetic.  They certainly have gotten me through the worst of a cold, and that counts for a lot.
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

5 Tips for Capturing a Little Extra Heat

Are you still freezing yer buns?  We really have not yet begun to freeze around here, but those of us who are keeping the house heat set on "low" know that it helps to capture every spare degree of heat.  Here are five ways to make your house toastier without spending any extra money:

1.  Reset your ceiling fans.  This was once a matter of great debate between my father and I, so let me say for the record that your fan should be set with  the downward edge of the blade going forward, which is usually clockwise.  Many fans will settle the debate for you by putting "winter" and "summer" on the switch.  This pushes the warm air at the ceiling downward, which keeps the living area of the room warmer.  We don't have ceiling fans at Casa FC&G other than in the sunroom, but they do make a difference.

2.  Stop the dishwasher mid-dry-cycle:  This is one of my favorite tips.  I set the dishwasher to do a dry cycle as part of the normal wash, then stop it midway through and open the dishwasher door.  The dishes are already dry and as sterilized as they are going to get, and all that lovely steam and heat comes out and fills the kitchen.

3.  Leave the clothes dryer open a minute or two:  If you like to fold your clothes in the laundry room, leave the dryer door open while you do it.  The heat inside the dryer drum will come out into the room.  Be careful, because depending on how well your dryer is vented to the outside and how secure the baffles are, you can quickly get outside cold air.  But that initial burst of warmth is wonderful.

4.  Leave the pot on the stove:  If you boil pasta or potatoes, lift the food out with a strainer or slotted spoon and leave the boiling pot on the stove (with the burner off) while you eat.  The heat will escape into the room.  This is also a great excuse for making stock during the winter.

5. Open the oven door:  My all-time favorite.  When you do you regularly-scheduled baking, open the oven door when you are done to get a burst of 350 degree air coming into your kitchen.

The Analysis

Fast:  None of these ideas should take more than a few seconds to implement.  Would I steer you into a long, drawn-out project?

Cheap:  You probably won't notice a huge difference in your heat bills, but every degree counts in the winter.

Good:  Keeping warm while saving money is what we are all about!
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shop Locally, Shop Sustainably

(OK, so the photo has nothing to do with the topic today, except to say that this was my first log cabin pot holder, and I still think it is pretty.)

So, we're getting into the holiday season, and it is almost impossible to avoid weighing in on how to handle it: use your frugal savings to shop a lot; cut back and shop a little; don't shop at all.  Whatever your perspective, there's probably a good strategy out there in the blogosphere.

However, I'm going to suggest that the FC&G way to handle holiday shopping is to shop locally as much as you can.  Here are my thoughts:

1.  Shopping local is sustainable:  Much of this blog focuses on things you can do to be self-sufficient, but no person is an island.  We cannot live entirely alone; human beings live in communities.  I suggest you use your money to support your neighbors' work, in the process keeping the money in your local community.  Eventually, it will come back to you.  That is a sustainable system.

Gift idea:  Rather than ordering gift baskets of food from large distribution organizations or those mall kiosks, go to the winter farmers' market and buy local jams, preserves, sausages, and cheese, and put those all in a pretty container.  Even if you are carrying the goodies a long way to Grandma's house, the purchases will support your community, and you are sure to have a one-of-a-kind gift.

2.  Shopping local is economically viable:  One way to support your community is to exchange your skill for someone else's.  Yes, that sometimes means barter, but primarily, we use money as an intermediary in the process.  So, you trade your skill as a computer programmer or a welder or a teacher for money, and then you can trade that for someone else's product.  I suggest you keep that money and that effort in your own community by buying as much as possible from local providers.  If you are in an area such as mine, which is still feeling the impact of the recession, those dollars kept at  home will do far more good than they would if they took an expensive trip to a corporate HQ.

Gift idea:  Rather than buying a mass-produced item, consider supporting an artisan who is now making a living off of his or her skill.  A local woodworker, for example, could potentially create anything from a set of coasters to a fabulous Adirondack chair, and you are sure that you are spending your money with someone in your community while you give an interesting gift.

3.  Shopping local is political:  This is not a political blog; I don't care if my readers vote or think the way I do.  However, I do hope my readers are voting with their dollars (or yen or euros) by supporting businesses that behave the way they believe is responsible.  Have you ever tried to trace the supply chain for a product from a large conglomerate?  Physical supplies come from all over the globe, as do administrative supports and marketing.  With your local businesses, your artisan is often the same one standing behind the counter, and that person can tell you in detail where the supplies came from and how the product was made.  If you agree that the person behaved responsibly and ethically, then your money is a vote to support continuation of that behavior.

Gift idea:  There are fewer worries about poor workplace conditions or questionable executive behavior when you buy local.  Quiz your local merchant about the supply and production chain when purchasing.  Try to find local substitutes for things you might otherwise buy from a faceless conglomerate, like knitwear from a local knitter who uses natural fiber yarns.

4.  Shopping local is environmental:  OK, not always.  But if you want raw honey or a product made without latex or a gift that uses as many upcycled items as possible, your best bet is the local provider.  If the large conglomerates have economies of scale on their side, then the small local provider has the advantage of overseeing the process in minute detail.  This means you can use your purchase to support a business that protects the environment in a way that you believe is effective.

Gift idea:  Think about bypassing the cookie-cutter gifts in favor of unique items that fit your sustainable beliefs.  There are many artisans in your community that work with upcycled items and create beautiful jewelry and household decorations that involve very little new raw material.

What are your ideas for sustainable holiday gifts?  Will you be shopping local this year?
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Coping with Cold Season the FC&G Way

Here we go again.  November starts the busy season for me, with extra work coming into Hilltop Communications, extra work and teaching at the second shift job, extra work on Carrot Creations to get ready for the holiday season, and the normal household responsibilities.  Then, almost predictably, Mr. FC&G has come down with a cold, and if this follows our normal pattern, I will get one soon enough in spite of our taking precautions about germ-sharing.

Therefore, today I thought I'd share a round-up of sustainable projects to help you weather cold season.  While I can't promise any of these will definitely prevent a cold, they will make dealing with it a bit easier.

Make Your Own Hankies:  I've noticed a distressing trend lately of people in offices leaving crumpled tissues within reach on their desks.  I'm guilty of this sometimes.  Maybe these tissues are used to wipe hands after a snack, but I'm afraid some of them are there because it seems wasteful to use a tissue for a single nose-dab and then throw it away.  It is, but yuck!

Make some of your own hankies.  Take a whole bunch of them to work, if need be.  You can easily use one once and then stuff it in your briefcase to bring home for laundering.  (Make yourself a little baggie or re-use a plastic grocery bag if you are squeemish about carryin the used ones around.)  Or, if you choose to use your hankie more than once, a hankie takes the stress of folding and storing in purse or pocket much better than does a flimsy tissue.  And homemade hankies are so much nicer to a sore nose!

Sage Noodle Soup:  With the antimicrobial properties of sage and the traditional anti-cold goodness of chicken broth, this is a great palliative when you are sick.  You will see that the first time out I resorted to packaged chicken broth; if you are the healthy one in the family and you have time to make chicken stock, this recipe will really turn out well.  Make a bunch of stock over the weekend while you are feeling well, then you will have the "fixins" for soup for a while.

Heat Up Some Bed Warmers:  Don't make a person feeling under the weather go to bed with cold feet.  Slide a warm bed warmer (or "knee thingie") in bed with them for comfort.  I love these regardless how I am feeling!
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Lime Tree is Expecting

One of my great pleasures in life is a well-mixed mojito.  It is such a fascination of mine, I have spent quite some time tinkering with the recipe.  Key ingredients are homegrown mojito mint, and homegrown key limes.

Last year, the dwarf key lime tree gave me its first crop of about 8-10 limes.  This year, although the tree set at least that many little limes, they all fell off or disappeared as the weather went from chilly to hot.  So, I was particularly excited when the tree bloomed again, just as I brought it indoors for the season.

Now, I will do a lot of things for my plants.  I water them to simulate rain, I use grow lights as needed to supplement sun, and I even run a little fan to help seedlings learn to deal with wind.  But I was a little concerned when I thought I was going to have to become a surrogate bee and help the lime tree have baby limes.

Last year, I dutifully brushed the pollen from the stamens of the flowers and transferred it to other flowers in the hope of getting a winter crop of limes.  Little did I know, my efforts were for naught, because my flowers were all "male;" that is, they only had stamens.  In order to get limes, you need flowers with a stigma, the little bit that looks kind of like a lollypop sticking up in the center of the flower.  (If you think I knew this ahead of time, let me tell you that I spent quite some time Googling like mad when the plant bloomed this year.)

The sources I consulted suggest that a citrus tree will pollinate itself as long as you have flowers with stigmas and stamens, but I wasn't going to take anything to chance in my wind-free and bee-free environment, so into the dining room I went, humming Barry White tunes and wielding a paint brush.  I transferred pollen from stamens to stigmas and hoped for the best.

Sure enough, my lime tree now has the characteristic green swellings at the base of the stigma in the flowers.  If all goes well, I hope to have a crop of at least a half a dozen key limes by spring.  The blessed event is much anticipated.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011


I have to hand it to Kayla K, over at her blog Kayla K's Thrifty Ways.  She suggested a recipe for homemade "Rice-a-Roni," and I knew I had to try it with my own twist.  (Visit Kayla's when you have the chance; she has some great thrifty projects, and she is another blogger in the small family space, which is helpful for those of us who are cooking and crafting for two instead of six.)

The "Rice-a-Ron-ish," as I call mine, was done in less than 20 minutes, and it tasted really good.  Mr. FC&G declared it "a hundred times better than the boxed stuff," and I have to agree it had a subtleness and flavor that the spice packet variety doesn't have.

FC&G Rice-a-Ron-ish

1 cup instant brown rice
About 1 cup whole wheat spaghetti, broken into small pieces
2 t. sage
1 t. thyme
2 medium leeks, chopped
2 cups homemade chicken broth
sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Cook the rice, pasta, and spices in the broth.  Add the leeks in the last 5 minutes of cooking to preserve some crunch.  Serve as a side dish, or wolf the whole thing down as a meal for two, which is what we did!

The Analysis

Fast:  Just like the box, this was ready in 20 minutes.  In fact, my pasta was nearly cooked in the time it took me to go out to the garden and get some leeks.

Cheap:  The homemade broth, and garden spices and leeks make this super-cheap.  There is probably less than $1 worth of rice and pasta in here to serve two.

Good:  The flavor of the chicken broth really came through on this, along with the spices.  This is so cheap and easy, I don't think I'll ever buy the box again.  Thanks, Kayla!
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Final Summary

As I promised yesterday, with the 2011 main gardening season over, it is time to distill some lessons from my gardening effort.  It was a very bad year weather-wise:  almost three months of rain and cold, followed by epic heat.  Things would sprout and then become stunted; the fruit trees tried to fruit but couldn't.  Our oak trees didn't even produce acorns.  I watched lettuces struggle and then bolt practically overnight. Yet, in spite of all of that, we turned a bit of a retail profit, and we learned the following:

Gardening is profitable:  If you average the haul out over the entire year, we brought in more than 10 pounds of produce per month and saved over $20 per month.  I consider that pretty pathetic, given the amount of space I dedicate to gardening, but even with the challenges we faced, we saved money.  In a sense, the garden this year was like a monthly CSA box that I was paid to take.  I still stand by my calculation that the overall savings is more like $20 per week, because the garden produce displaces a lot of more expensive and less-healthy purchases.  Why buy frozen pizzas when that shredded zucchini in the freezer can be the basis of zucchini orzo?

But local produce is out there:  If you don't have the space to garden, don't worry.  More and more, I saw local and/or "regional" produce available in my grocery stores, and the prices became very reasonable when the produce was in-season.  If you can't garden, you can still buy local, and you can save some money by respecting seasonality.  That means strawberries in May, not December.  And I hope my local supermarket reads this and sees my displeasure at finding pumpkins and rhubarb in the same produce section.

Organics are difficult:  However, I had a lot of trouble readily finding organic produce.  Yes, it is out there.  Most grocery stores carry some.  However, much of the time that I looked for an organic analog for a price comparison, I couldn't find one.  Had I been able to, my "amount saved" tally would surely have been much higher, because organics average about $1 per pound more than conventional produce, across the board.  With the recent opening of a local Earth Fair store, I should have a better chance at checking organic produce prices in the future.  However, right now our best chances for organic produce are lettuces and "keeper crops," like squashes, potatoes, onions, and carrots.

So are special varieties:  Purple potatoes?  Black Krim tomatoes?  Specialty peppers?  If I wanted a certain variety of veggie, I almost certainly had to grow it to be sure I could get my hands on it.  Stores are making progress, but they still carry primarily the most common varieties of veggies and often lump others together under the umbrella "heirloom," which anyone who has ever grown Black Krim, Amish Paste, and Yellow Pear tomatoes knows is nonsense.

Herbs are lucrative:  If you can only grow one category of produce, make it herbs.  Across the board, my herbs gave me the best ROI.  However, I expect this will change when and if I ever have another 300 pound tomato year.  (Cripes!  A decent tomato year could net me about $900!)

Save your seeds:  Above all, the difference between profit and loss in a bad year was saving seeds, starting my own plants, and relying on perennials.  Crops like leeks that are relatively new to me I grew from greenhouse plants, and they didn't turn a profit.  With things like herbs, peppers, pumpkins, and tomatoes, even a relatively small harvest could be profitable because of low or no seed/plant costs.

Gardening makes you eat more veggies:  Duh, right?  But this finding is very important if you are considering a gardening effort.  If you are buying all of your produce, you will buy exactly what you think you will eat.  If you are growing it, you will eat whatever is ripe.  This makes for some amusing meals ("Do you think we could put zucchini in that?"), but it means that we used veggies to stretch pizza dough, to top pasta, and to moisten cookies.  This isn't a trick to get little kids to eat; this was a way to use our hard-earned veggies in healthy ways before they went bad.

The garden never ends:  This was the big surprise to me.  I've been gardening since I was eight years old, but recently Mr. FC&G and I have put a lot of effort into extending the season on both ends.  This year, we started forking the garden in February, and now in November, we still have leeks, peas, carrots, mint, rosemary, swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes (fingers crossed) and limes to look forward to.

And the Future:  So what does this mean for the future of this column on the blog?  Starting today, I will be reporting on the garden like a business, which I think of it as anyway.  I will do a month-end post that lists produce harvested and expenditures.  I'll keep adding to the current tallies through the end of 2011, then January 1, 2012, the "garden year" rolls over and we start from zero.  I anticipate operating in the red for a while in January/February because of the seed orders, then working ourselves into the black as the year goes on. It seems like the best way to take into account the ebb and flow of a garden.  After all, gardeners don't typically buy all new seeds and plants in spring, put them in the ground at Mother's Day, rip them out before the first frost, and call it done.  Instead, we have stashes of seeds, we start things at different times,  we watch the weather and pull out the tarps to see if we can extend the season by days, weeks, or even months.  A real gardener is always looking for a new crop to fill in underused time and a new treat to bring some veggies to a winter-dulled palate.  I think this will be a better way of keeping track.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Leeks and Peppers

Behold, the silliest cold frame ever constructed!  Thank heavens we have an opaque fence around the microfarm, because the neighbors would think we're nuts.  But under this miracle of engineering constructed by Mr. FC&G lies a crop of carrots and the rest of the crop of leeks.

For right now, we are going to sum up the 2011 summer gardening year as follows:

Leeks:  As I mentioned, I still have the leeks going, and I have probably a dozen under the cold frame.  Thus far this year, I have harvested 45 leeks, most on the small side to total 58 ounces.  The price for trimmed leeks at Trader Joe's was 50 cents an ounce, giving me $29.00 of leeks.

My problem was that I bought leek plants, not leek starts.  That was expensive, at $3.29 per plant.  Next year, I will buy the starts.  Nonetheless, although I show a loss right now, my leeks will come in about even when the season is totally done.

$29.00 of leeks (3.63 lbs) - $39.48 of plants = -10.48

Peppers:  Would would have thought that peppers would be the last crop I finished bringing in?  However, yesterday I harvested my last pepper.  I grew 50 peppers of various kinds this year, for a total of 24 ounces.  A comparable pepper at Trader Joe's was $1.59 for half a pound, so I grew $4.77 retail worth of peppers.  I used about one pack of seeds, depending on saved seed and leftover seed for the rest.  That is an expense of $3.29, and a profit of $1.48

2011 Tally to Date: 126.44 lbs of crops; $244.71 saved

So, overall a bit of a disappointing garden year, even though it isn't done yet.  On average, my gardening this year brought in more than 10 pounds of veggies per month in the year, and saved me $20.  So, even a bad year was a kind of triumph.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post.  I will discuss the lessons learned and the FC&G analysis, and I'll tell you how we will be considering "How Much Does a Garden Grow" in the future.  I think you'll like the new plan!
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Herbs

As the summer gardening season winds down, and we are about to strike a total on how much the garden grew (we still have leeks and peppers finishing up outside), it is time to consider herbs.  This is where the garden really gets some bang for its buck.

Herbs are a tricky thing to measure.  As I stated at the outset, I didn't weigh most of them, but I'm going to do a rough tally of how many store-jar-sized amounts I used and/or dried for winter use.  For many of the plants, this will be an underestimate, because the plant would in most cases have given even more than I harvested.  However, with herbs, I try to harvest enough to use myself and to share with family and friends.  I am comparing to organic dried herbs available from my local Meijer, except for some specialty crops for which I got prices on the internet.

Many plants are also perennial, so there was no investment in the plant this year in some cases.  For others, my local greenhouse had a price of $3.29 per plant.

Dill:  I love dill.  It goes in pickles in the years that we put dill pickles up, and it goes in my cheesy potato soup.  It is hard to dry enough dill to get me through the year, but I put up about one jar worth.  My dill grows from seeds that I gather each year, so no up front cost.  Store price: $3.39/jar.  Profit: $3.39

Basil:  Strange basil year.  I put in two Genovese basil plants, and I lost one to wilt.  Nonetheless, I did put up two half-pints of frozen basil in oil, which I use to make pesto.  I prefer this to the dried variety, and I have some dried left from a prior year for applications that need it.  I will estimate that my one plant gave me about three jars' worth of basil, counting that I used this summer.  Store price: $3.19/jar x 3.  Plant cost:  $3.29.  Profit:  $6.28

Sage:  I can't believe I used to pull the sage plants out at the end of the season and buy new ones each year!  My sage bushes have been growing for three years now, and they give far more sage than I can use -- and I use a lot.  I probably use at least three jars' worth, and I will give my mother at least two.  Sage is expensive at the store, too, at a price of $5.79 per jar.  Profit: $28.95

Coriander:  My cilantro and coriander (coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, if you didn't realize this) reseeds itself each year.  We never use as much cilantro as is available, but we do use it to make several Latin American-inspired meals in the spring, plus we put up some coriander for use in making sausage in winter.  Let's say the whole thing was one jar's worth.  Profit:  $3.19

Marjoram:  I bought a marjoram plant last year on a lark, and I find that I like it in pot roasts and in sausage.  I dried about 2 jars' worth this year, with no plant cost.  Store price: $3.39/jar x2.  Profit:  6.78

Rosemary:  My rosemary bush is alive and thriving in my front window, giving me all the rosemary I could possibly use year round.  I like rosemary in potatoes, and I may use a jar's worth over the course of the year.  Profit:  3.19

Thyme:  Bad pun, but I literally never have enough thyme.  I purchased one plant this year to compliment the two or three I already had growing in a pot.  I dry as much as I can, but it doesn't add up to much.  Perhaps one jar worth over the course of the year, but I love it.  Store price: $3.39/jar.  Plant cost: $3.29.  Profit: $0.10

Oregano:  Like my marjoram, my oregano plants are perennial, but I put in new plants this year of a variety I like better than my old plants.  I put up about two jars of dried oregano flowers.  Store cost:  $3.39/jar x 2.  Plant cost: $3.29 x 2.  Profit:  $0.20

Feverfew:  Feverfew also comes back each year, and thank heavens, because it is my secret weapon against my headaches.  I'll keep the plants going as long as I can before they die back and go dormant, and I will probably try to bring one inside.  Organic feverfew capsules are $10.89 for 90 days.  I try to take feverfew year round, but it is hard to estimate how much fresh plant is equivalent to the dried herb, so I will pretend I replaced one bottle's worth.  Profit:  $10.89

Lavender:  Finally, lavender.  Some people use this in cooking, but I use it primarily as a potpourri. I love to put some in the powder room in the winter to remind me that summer is coming.  I dried an ounce, which is equivalent to $1.37 online.  Profit: $1.37

Our lesson here?  Grow other crops to take care of prepping and independent living needs, so definitely get proficient with growing potatoes, squashes, beans, and tomatoes.  But if you are gardening purely to save yourself money (and flavor all of those potatoes and beans!), you need to grow herbs.

Herb Total:  $64.34  (And, just for giggles, let's call that a pound of herbs.)

2011 Tally to Date: 121.31 lbs of crops; $253.71 saved
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pattern Review: McCall's M5551 Apron

Confession:  I'm an apron girl.  I do a lot of canning and food preservation, and that inevitably leads to splashes and stains, so having a nice stack of aprons is an investment in preserving expensive clothes.  But on top of that, I just like the retro-prettiness of having an apron while I cook.

For a while, I have been planning on making a full-coverage apron, much like farm women have worn for decades.  This weekend, I finally got around to making McCall's pattern M5551, and I think it was a success.

The pattern includes four apron styles:  a gathered apron with a bib front, a gathered apron with no bib, a butcher's apron, and the one I made:  a front-and-back sheath style apron.  The apron I made is lined with the same fabric from the front (although I guess you could mix and match), which means you need about 5 yards of fabric, plus a bit for the pocket.

I made a couple of alterations to the pattern.  I didn't create a button hole in back where the slits join, because I didn't make a deep enough slit to need buttoning; I just needed to get my head through.  I did put a decorative button at the base of the slit, to cover a bit of pucker I had there.  (I used to be really good at these kinds of openings, but I guess I'm out of practice.)  I also didn't do side ties, but instead created a self-belt that was sewn to the back and which wraps around the front.

The apron turned out pretty heavy, which Mr. FC&G pointed out will be nice in the winter.  I think future versions will not be lined, because that will save on fabric and make them lighter.  I also will position my self-belt up a little higher, or perhaps experiment with side fastenings that are not ties.  The pocket is cute but is not necessary if you don't want to spend on the fabric.

All in all, I recommend this pattern.  I plan to get some denim the next time there is a sale and make Mr. FC&G a butcher's apron, since he spends so much time in the kitchen.  Expecting him to wear my flowered aprons is probably a bit much.

The Analysis

Fast:  This entire apron probably took me four hours to make, and I am not the fastest seamstress on the planet.

Cheap:  Oops.  I fell in love with a fabric that was not on sale, and I didn't even wait for a coupon.  Five yards of it ran up significantly.  Next time, only sale fabrics, and no self-lining.

Good:  Wouldn't a nice new apron brighten your day?  It did mine!
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Are You Freezin' Yer Buns?

Here in Zone 5b in Ohio, we have been blessed with a really mild fall, almost as if Mother Nature is apologizing for the three months of March weather followed by two months of August weather that passed for a growing season this summer.  I haven't seen a real frost yet (although one is due this weekend), and we have had spells of 80-degree weather in October.

But now it is chilly in earnest, and it is funny to watch the Facebook posts to see when my friends turn their whole-house heat on.  "I give up!  I'm turning on the heat," they all seem to post.

However, our heat is still off, and I hope to keep it that way for a while, as do many other hearty and potentially slightly-crazy bloggers.  This territory of "keep it off as long as possible, then keep it as low as you can" definitely belongs to The Crunchy Chicken, who every year sponsors her Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, in which she asks for commitments to keeping the heat off, then keeping it set to the lowest levels that still allow for livable conditions.  For the past several years, I have played along with 65 degree day temps and 57 degrees at night.

If you are playing along this year, let me suggest that the way to minimize that heat bill is to heat the smallest possible space you can stand.  So here's my strategy:

Heat Yourself:  In graduate school, I lived in an apartment building for which the heat was included in the rent, and believe me, I used to pride myself on being able to wear tank tops in January in that place.  Now that I'm paying for my own heat and not feeling so cavalier about such resources, I bundle up.  As I write this, I am wearing a pair of yoga socks over a pair of fleece socks, and my feet are nice and toasty.  So, your first job when the temps dip is to put on a sweater, just like Dad told you long ago.  "What, do you think we're made of money?  Put on a sweater!"

Heat Yourself and Your Immediate Environment:  I can't say enough good things about fleece quilts and lavender bed-warmers, warm mugs of cider and hot bowls of soup.  These heat your body and keep heat in the immediate environment, like a bed or a couch.  If there is anything to be said for winter, it is the joy of cuddling up with your spouse or pet under a quilt and reading a nice book.  So, don't think of it as a frugal move -- it is an indulgence!

Collect Heat from Passive Sources:  If anything around you is creating heat, we want to capture that for the room or house.  So, open the curtains on south- and west-facing windows if it is sunny, vent your dryer indoors if you have a good layout and set-up for that, and catch up on your baking (leave the oven door open after you finish).  If you take a hot shower, open that bathroom door to the bedroom so that some of the heat rolls out (a little humidity probably won't hurt you either, especially when the heat really does come on and dries out the house).  Try to avoid passing up free heat and then paying for heat later.

Heat Just a Room:  I work from home, and I write, so most of my work-time is spent at a desk.  There is no need to heat 3,000 square feet of house when what I really need is a space heater at my feet.  We also successfully heat the family room with our wood-burning fireplace insert; by closing the doors to the family room/kitchen area, we can have a cozy little evening and weekend retreat and not ever turn on the whole-house heat.  Then, we microwave a bed warmer or two and escape up into a cool bedroom that is made pleasant by the bed warmers and fleece quilts.

The Analysis:  Freeze Yer Buns Edition

Fast:  Speed really isn't a factor here.  Preparation is.  If you are ready to employ these strategies, you will.

Cheap:  That's the name of the game here!  Avoid turning on that heat, and avoid the bill that comes with it.

Good:  Remember, it isn't deprivation.  It is extra money (or needed money); it is a game; it is an indulgence.  You aren't depriving yourself, you are making a lifestyle choice for your own benefit.
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Monday, October 17, 2011

Beef and Leek Pie

(I just realized how many of our main dishes are in pie or pasta form!  Oh, well, they all taste different!)

As we have discussed, grass-fed beef can be significantly more expensive than corn-fed, CAFO-raised beef.  However, the expense is worth it to us for the increased nutritional value as well as the increased sustainability factor.  Grass-fed beef smells better (even raw), feels better in the hand, and tastes better, even to me (and I'm about 90% vegetarian). 

However, when you are paying $5 a pound for ground beef, you want to get the most out of it.  So, this weekend, we made beef and leek pie.  (Actually, we made two of them, since Mr. FC&G devoured the first one in two days.)  The recipe stretches the beef with the addition of pie crust, garden veggies, and some leftover beer.  It was so good, I had two pieces over the weekend, which probably hits my meat quota for the month!

Beef and Leek Pie

1 double pie crust
1 pound grass-fed beef
3 medium leeks, diced
5-6 small tomatoes, diced (I used yellow tomatoes, which accounts for the yellow tone of the pie above)
1 cup beer (We had some specialty beers, including one I received as a speaker's gift.  The more robust the beer, the more you taste it.)
1 T flour
1 t. dried thyme (optional)

Make your pie crust.

Brown ground beef in a skillet and drain (we don't need to, because the grass-fed beef we get is so un-fatty).  To the ground beef, add leeks and tomatoes and saute for a couple of minutes until the leeks are wilted.  Add the beer and the thyme, and bring to a simmer to let some of the alcohol and liquid cook off.

Add the flour and cook until the broth thickens.  Put mixture in the pie crust.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until pie crust is done.

(Optional:  If you don't like leeks and/or don't have garden tomatoes left, you could use a pint of canned corn as your veggie.)

The Analysis

Fast:  Not the quickest meal we've ever made, but pretty do-able when both Mr. FC&G and I are cooking.

Cheap:  This relies on garden veggies and herbs to stretch the expensive meat.  If you are buying meat, beer, and crust ingredients, the whole thing would probably come in at about $8 to create an average sized pie.  To save yourself another buck or two, I highly recommend giving speeches at venues that pay in exotic alcohol!  (Right now, I'm on the "will speak for lunch and booze" tour.)

Good:  If you are a meat eater, this is a well-balanced meal and a yummy hearty option on a chilly fall day.  It was particularly welcome after we spent the day putting the garden to bed.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

In Praise of Natural Yarns

When I was a little girl, my mother taught me to crochet.  She bought me my very own crochet hook, which I picked because of its shiny blue color, and probably because the size -- J -- made it feel like it was monogrammed.  I still use that hook today. 

Back then, your only yarn choices were acrylic.  (In fact, most of your clothing choices were of non-natural fibers too; it was the 70s, after all.)  Acrylic certainly is easy-care, but it tended to be scratchy, and it never had the feel of a nice homemade item.  Today's acrylics are much better, and they are well-suited for some applications.  However, they aren't quite the sustainable choice that one might hope for.

As gardening season gives way to more time inside, I spend more time on crocheting, knitting, and sewing, and I thought I'd share some of my favorite yarns.  All of these are used for our products over at Carrot Creations, and they would make fine choices for your own sustainable textile arts projects.

From left to right:

100% Cotton:  Cotton is, of course, a natural fiber, and these basic cotton yarns (once called "kitchen cottons") come in a wide range of twists, ombres, self-striping patterns, and solids.  They also wear extremely well.  I have kitchen towels that I have had for a decade made from these yarns, and they are still going strong.  Ditto for some socks that have gotten hard wear for two or three years without fraying.  Items made from this yarn will have a little "give" in them, and you can also shrink them a bit by drying them. 

100% Organic Cotton:  All of the benefits of cotton, plus organically grown.  This is my favorite yarn, not just for the sustainability credentials, but also because it crochets up fluffy and warm.  Because of the way the yarn is spun, it has the most "give" in it, and it is super-soft.

Bamboo/Wool Blend:  This particular yarn seems to take the dyes very well, so some of the most vibrant colors come in this yarn.  Bamboo has some antimicrobial properties, so this is a good yarn for socks or other items that you will use during exercise.  Because it does contain wool, you will want to wash it by hand or on cool, and lay flat to dry.  If you accidentally wash it on hot and put it in a hot dryer, it will felt on you.  (Guess how I learned this.)

Bamboo/Cotton Blend:  This yarn crochets up with a very light, silky feel, making it a good summer item option.  It combines the benefits of bamboo and cotton and gives you the lightest weight product of the four yarns.  Because it is a finer yarn than the others, you will be using a smaller hook and doing more work, but the yarn is very pleasant to handle.

What are your favorite sustainable yarns?
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Great Tomato Experiment

If you are following me on BeGreenInfo (and you totally should be!), you may have seen my recent post about Extending the Growing Season.  Especially with the ultra-funky weather we had this year, I need to squeeze every spare day of growing season out of the year.

This year, I'm trying an experiment that so far seems to be working.  If you still have a healthy tomato plant, particularly one you grew in a container, I invite you to play along to see if we can get some winter tomatoes!

This year, I had a ton of volunteer tomato plants, and I also had a lot of finished compost.  So, after I finished top dressing the garden, I started filling large pots with the beautiful humus, and in one I put a variety of leftover veggie plants to see how they would do.  I put a pumpkin vine, a cucumber vine, a pepper plant, and a volunteer tomato.

The tomato quickly took over the pot.  It grew three feet tall and smothered the other plants, but it didn't give any fruit.  I chalked that up to uneven weather and the fact that I had a volunteer in there rather than a container-specific variety.

However, a couple of weeks ago, a cold night was threatening, and I looked at this lovely healthy tomato plant with some tiny buds, and I couldn't bear to let it freeze.  So I brought it into the sunroom. 

The buds quickly opened.  Not knowing if it would really take to self-pollination or if it needed some help, I got out my trusty paint brush and went to work, going from flower to flower and brushing the pollen.  I sang some Barry White tunes to put the plant in the mood.

Lo and behold, I now have about six small tomatoes that are growing by the day.  I'm very hopeful that I will have a few tomatoes to harvest later than ever before.  If I could eat a fresh tomato on my mid-November birthday, I will be a happy girl indeed.  Just to up the odds, I'm going to keep singing Barry White.

What tricks are you using to keep your garden producing?
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pumpkin "Gnocchi" with Rosemary and Leek Butter Sauce

Last year, I bought half a dozen pie pumpkins with the intention to freeze the flesh and roast the seeds.  This was my first foray into having some winter squash around, and I was really glad I did.

I saved a few of the seeds for growing this year, and I got a couple of plants started.  Unfortunately, the bed I planned to put them in is still a work in progress, as Mr. FC&G has to chop stumps out of it, and he ran out of steam when the weather started getting unusually hot.  So, I put two or three seedlings in the side he had finished, and I hoped for the best.

Well, chalk it up to a new bed, new location, etc., but I got only one pumpkin from the plants.  I really didn't care:  this was a new bed, so I wasn't losing any space that could have gone to other crops, and the seeds were a freebie from buying the pumpkins.

To use my "bounty," I just made the following:

Pumpkin "Gnocchi" with Rosemary and Leek Butter Sauce

3 c. flour
1 t. salt
3 eggs
Flesh of one small pie pumpkin, baked until soft and removed from skin
Water as needed

Combine all ingredients and roll into "snakes" on floured cutting board.  Cut off small slices to make a small dumpling shape, and boil.  (Mine were a bit big -- stick with penny or dime sized slices.)  The pasta is ready when the dumplings float.  You will have to do this in multiple batches unless you have a really huge, wide pan to boil in.  The pasta stays nicely warm in a pan on the back of the stove.

While the pasta cooks, combine:

1/2 c. butter
1 leek, chopped
1 sprig of rosemary, finely chopped

Saute the leek and rosemary in the butter. 

When you have your pasta ready, dress it with the butter sauce, and serve with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.

This is a great way to get some Vitamin A in your diet with the pumpkin, along with all the benefits of fresh, free-range eggs and healthy leeks.  It is also a great vegetarian option, because I guarantee you won't want meat with this -- the dumpling "gnocchi" is quite meaty in texture.

How Much Does a Garden Grow?  Pumpkins

So my lone pumpkin was 10 ounces, and I paid nothing in seed costs.  Last year, I was able to get pie pumpkins for 50 cents each, but this year, everywhere I went I found exorbitant prices.  The best I found was $2.49 each, for non-organic pie pumpkins.  I'll use that price.

2011 Tally to Date: 122.31 lbs of crops; $189.37 saved
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Friday, October 7, 2011

Flavored iced tea

An unseasonably warm day, and a glass of iced tea, waiting for me to escape my office and go out in the sun.  Ah!
With the garden slowing down, I have a number of other sustainable living projects to share with you.  However, today I thought I'd keep it quick and simple and give you this idea:  flavored iced tea.

Adding flavor to iced tea is nothing new, but I had the desire to to find some flavor without adding sweeteners of any kind.  Because we are less active in the fall and winter, I need to cut a few calories from my diet, and my daily Pepsi Throwback habit isn't cutting it from a weight or budget standpoint.

So, I made sun tea, but in the half gallon jar I also put one bag of vanilla chai tea.  The vanilla imparts a sweet flavor and the chai gives some spice, so I don't really crave the sugar at all.  This will be a nice change!
The Analysis

Fast:  If you are already making sun tea or refridgerator tea, it is no trick to pop a bag of flavored tea in there.

Cheap:  The cost of the extra tea bag is only a few cents; if I can eliminate 3-4 Pepsis a week, I will save over $1 and as much as 600 calories.  I am also not paying for the transportation of water.

Good:  I'm enjoying this as a beverage, and it is much more responsible too. 
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the first crops the home gardener attempts, or at least they should.  If you have read Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, you know that the conditions under which commercial tomatoes are grown is pretty unacceptable, and having your own for two months out of the year beats insisting on "imports" for 12.

In spite of a pretty bad tomato year, I still got a profitable tomato harvest.  I brought in 28.5 pounds of ripened tomatoes, and 10 pounds of green tomatoes to ripen in the house.  At two places in town, organic tomatoes were $2.99 a pound, and I am sure that they were picked before they turned red and allowed to ripen in transit.  Therefore, I'm counting the entire 38.5 pounds at full price.  This gives me a tomato value of $115.12.

I spent about $15 on seeds this year.  I always get so many volunteers that I have switched to starting just a few seeds to try new varieties or introduce some new genetics into the mix that produces the interesting crosses suited for our microclimate.  In this case, relying on seed and volunteers kept me profitable, because buying 10-12 plants at $3 each could have wiped out a good chunk of my relatively anemic little profit.

I think this was a bad tomato year for most of our area, yet we did eat a good number of tomatoes and canned a couple of pints.  I'm not excited about the result, but like all good gardeners, I immediately think, "wait til next year!"

2011 Tally to Date: 121.68 lbs of crops; $186.88 saved
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Monday, October 3, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Onions

(Note:  I know the photo quality of the above isn't great, but I also thought it was kind of a pretty shot as-is, with all of the smeariness.)

So, as we start to wind down on the garden tallies, it is time to talk onions.

I know nothing about onions.  I know that root crops have a difficult time in the clay soil of Ohio, even the patch of the garden that has been worked and improved and mulched and generally loved since the day we broke sod on this garden.  But I love onions and love a good storage crop.  So I ordered onion sets this spring and put them in the ground.

At first, they seemed to be going gang-busters.  I had beautiful onion greens above ground, and I even carefully snipped just a few to use in my spring cooking.  With 300 sets in the ground, I anticipated a failure rate of one-third and looked forward to 200 onions to eat from our cellar all winter.

Well, not quite.  The heat came all at once, and the little buggers bolted on me!  All at once, I had all of these onion flowers in the garden, and everything I read told me not to let them do that, else they would put all their energy into seed formation rather than bulb formation.  I was out every day snipping off flowers and throwing them to the ground in the hopes of getting some volunteers next year (we'll see). 

When the onions finally stopped blooming and their tops yellowed and bent over, it was theoretically time to harvest.  What I got was 6 pounds of the tiniest onions you can imagine; I have to use three of them to equal one medium onion.  Even worse, a number of the sets didn't sprout at all.

Well, I was (and am) pretty ticked off.  Who takes a loss on onions, after all?  I shoved the unsprouted sets back in the ground, and they are all growing even as we speak.  There may be a 2011 garden wrap up sometime early in 2012 if I mulch these and they actually deign to give me full size onions.

All in all, I don't know if I'll grow onions again.  I usually give any crop three tries before I give up, but organic onions are readily available in the grocery for $1 a pound.  Using that as a base price, it cost me $12.95 in sets to get $6.00 worth of onions. 


2011 Tally to Date: 83.18 lbs of crops; $86.76 saved

(Next up:  tomatoes, peppers, leeks, and herbs)
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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Not Sustainable

Regular readers know that I usually try to keep my posts pretty up-beat, and I try to share with you some sort of tip or project that you might consider in your own life to increase your sustainability quotient.  But today, I am looking out on the aftermath of a chilly fall rain, watching my poor tomato plants give their last and thinking about the upcoming season in which we will turn on the heat and still feel cold, and I don't know that I have a lot of sustainability wisdom. 

So, it seems like a good time to confess that sustainable living is still a journey for me, too, and that there are a number of things that I do that aren't sustainable and which need to be attacked.

I haven't been biking as much as I should:  I love my new bike, which I have nicknamed the Conch Cruiser in honor of my goal of eventually using a bike for transportation full-time when/if we move to Key West.  I have been biking a lot, primarily to the second shift job, but also to the grocery and post office occasionally. However, lately, the fall weather has made me a little shy of showing up at work with my hair a mess from the drizzle and humidity, and my knee has been very vocal about recommending against bicycling.  I've been driving.  I've been driving to the gym, for crying out loud, which is the hallmark of unsustainable behavior.

I love my foaming shower cleaner:  We do all of our deep cleaning of the bathroom with a steamer, and it works very well, but it takes some time to set up, fill, and use.  I try to spray down the walls of the shower with my hand-held shower head, but the soap scum still builds up.  So occasionally, I buy a can of expensive foaming shower cleaner packaged in a spray can that is no doubt filled with propellant, cleaning chemical, and the myriad pieces that make it spray.  I throw it away after the four or five cleanings I get out of it, because you can't recycle that kind of container.  But I keep buying it because it is the easy way to spray down the shower and come back later for a quick scrub and rinse. 

I've been craving boxed mac 'n cheese:  I will eat pasta and cheese in any form, served anywhere.  Probably the fanciest I've ever had is lobster mac at Louie's Backyard in Key West, and the workhorse of the food genre is my own homemade recipe, which we have, at minimum, for holidays and every barbecue we host or hold.  But every once in a while, I want the blue box of my youth.  I want the cheap-o noodles and the packet of cheese powder.  It is terribly unhealthy, I always gain weight, and it can't by any stretch be considered food.  But I eat it occasionally anyway.  I've been craving it lately; I guess sometimes the need for comfort food wins out.

These are all little things, but together they are areas in which little changes would boost my sustainability, save me money, and make me healthier.  And yet I struggle.  So if you do, too, you are not alone.

Do you have any sustainability struggles to share?
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Make Your Own Sour Cream

Remember all that money we are saving on veggies by growing our own?  Well, it is time to spend a little, because one of the things that most sustainable-living sources don't point out is that finding high-quality, sustainably-produced dairy products is sometimes difficult, and when you find them, you will be paying up for them.

Why am I not just grabbing a gallon of whatever milk is on sale?
  • Hormones:  I want a milk that is from cows not treated with hormones to make them produce more milk.  Although the government notes that the hormone is not detectable in the final milk or cheese, I don't believe our bodies can't detect it.  And frankly, I feel "puffier" when I eat dairy that contains the hormones.  That's subjective, of course, but I still would prefer to avoid the hormone.
  • Grass-fed:  Here's the thing -- cows are ruminants, which means that they have stomachs (two each, actually) that are designed to digest grasses.  However, corn and grain cause them no end of problems.  The final milk product from a grass-fed cow has a higher level of CLA, which is thought to ward off cancer and other problems.  And, allowing cows to live like cows is inherently kinder to them.
  • Cream line:  I just uncovered evidence that homogenized milk, in which the fat globules are broken up to mix in the cream and save you the terrible task of actually shaking the milk before you pour it, might contribute to higher levels of cholesterol in the body.  It seems the larger fat globules in non-homogenized milk actually are handled by your body better.
OK, so I want a hormone-free product from grass-fed cows who ate pesticide- and herbicide-free grass and gave milk that the bottler did not homogenize.  I don't want much, do I?  When I find this product (which I did, in the form of milk from Hartzler Family Dairy), I want to make as many of my dairy products as possible from it to boost the health benefits to us and get the most bang for my buck.

To make sour cream, then, I poured a half gallon of milk into a bowl and let it sit overnight, then skimmed the cream.  I got nearly a quart of cream, to which I added just a bit of half and half to make a whole quart.  I then heated the cream to 86 degrees and stirred in the sour cream starter culture and let the whole thing sit with a towel wrapped around it for 12 hours.

Bingo!  Sour cream.  I think the non-homogenized cream really made it a lot thicker, and homemade sour cream is generally milder in flavor than store-bought.  I feel really good about this easy project, and I can't wait to make some chicken paprikash this weekend using the sour cream as a basis for the sauce.

The Analysis

Fast:  Actual hands-on time was fairly minimal, although this is a two-day project once you count letting the cream rise and then letting the sour cream sit and thicken.

Cheap:  Oh, heck no.  My oh-so-healthy milk is $3.50 a half gallon, plus $1.50 bottle deposit.  The sour cream culture will set you back another $1.20 a packet plus shipping.  With dairy, you either go healthy or cheap, but there is very little middle ground.  If this simply puts this project out of reach for you financially, consider upgrading to organic sour cream, which by definition will not have hormones or exposure to certain pesticides and herbicides.

Good:  It is very hard to find sour cream that meets all the conditions set out above for milk, so making it is my only option.  The end product is really much better-tasting, I think, and it is worth the extra money. 
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