Friday, January 28, 2011

How to Buy Sustainable Meat

While many people who embrace sustainable living find that vegetarianism best suits their lifestyle, many of the rest of us eat meat. I do so only occasionally, but my husband is a carnivore and does like to have meat an average of once a day. So, when we shop for meat, we look for the healthiest and most sustainable options we can.

What you see above is a chuck roast in my Crock Pot, simmering away with potatoes, carrots, and garden herbs. The great thing about this roast/stew is that it can be entirely local if you have dried your own herbs and cellared your root veggies, but it depends on sourcing your meat locally.  The process can sometimes be harder than you think, so here are the steps we follow.  The further down the list you get, the more sustainable your meat purchase.

1.  Find a local butcher.  We are lucky enough to have an Amish-run butcher shop, Landes Fresh Meats, less than 45 minutes away.  We know they butcher on site, so at least we know that a purchase there eliminates some of the transportation costs associated with delivery to a chain grocer, and we are happy to keep the money in our community.  We stock up twice a year to further reduce transportation costs.

2.  Check out where your butcher sources their animals.  Ours draws animals in from Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, so some of them may fail the 100-mile test that many locovores use, but it is certainly better than a beef raised in Iowa and taken to a slaughter house in Oklahoma with the meat then trucked to Ohio.

3.  Ask about any policies they may have about how the animal was raised.  We know that Landes does not accept beef that has been given hormones, fed animal by-products, or received antibiotics within 150 days of harvest.  These things are important to us.  If it is important to you that the animal have ample access to the outdoors (as well it should), then ask that too.

4.  Ask what the animal ate.  Landes uses corn-fed animals.  I would prefer grass-fed, but that is much more expensive and harder to get.  In fact, around here it seems I am always balancing between grass-fed and local, as the only grass-fed meat I can find is at a small upscale grocer, and it is not sourced locally. 

Since Landes does custom butchering, my next task is to find someone raising grass-fed cattle that would sell me a whole or a part if I paid for butchering as well as the meat.  This is our next step to work on in our quest to be more sustainable.  However, I know it will be hard to find.  We once bought part of a beef raised by an acquaintance, only to hear that the animal had been fed all sorts of leftovers.  In that case, a corn diet may have been preferable.

5.  When in doubt, raise your own.  We will never be able to do this on our property, but surely the most ethical way of eating meat is to raise the animal yourself, treat it with respect by allowing it as much room to roam and as much of its natural diet as possible, then take responsibility for its harvest.  

All in all, we are happy with our solution to stocking our freezer, but we know we can always do better.  However, I just feel better cooking up a roast for Mr. FC&G if I know more about the origins of both the meat and the veggies. 

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Drier Balls

No, they're not baby porcupines or my newest crop of durian.  What you see above, in my dimly lit laundry room, is my pair of drier balls.  (Insert your favorite naughty joke here.)

I love my drier balls, and I can't believe I've had them this long without giving them a blog feature.  Drier balls, as the name implies, are firm-but-not-hard balls you put in the drier with your clothes or towels.  They bounce around as the items dry, keeping the items separate so they dry faster and making them softer and a little less prone to static.  Because of this, they are a substitute for drier sheets, which makes them a huge budget win.

I bought these drier balls last February for $16, an exorbitant price.  However, a friend was selling items for her son's band fundraiser, and these were some of the only things I would actually use.  You should be able to pick up a pair at your local grocery or big box store for a quarter to a third of the price.

In spite of overspending, they have already paid for themselves because I have not purchased a single box of drier sheets since.  They do a great job of making my towels and jeans fluffy, and I use them in every load except extremely delicate ones, like satin.  And really, how often do you dry a load of satin clothing?  And if you do, would you please email me?  Your life sounds much more exciting than mine.

I only use drier sheets on rare occasion now, such as when I am drying a very staticky load.  Even then, I can usually get away with using a drier sheet twice on the "fluff" cycle, so my drier sheet usage is practically nil.  This means much less ongoing expense, and much less build-up on my drier lint screen. 

The Analysis

Fast:  The balls just live in my drier, so I'm actually saving a few seconds per load for not putting in a drier sheet and not picking the drier sheets up at the store.

Cheap:  At the rate I'm going, these balls will last forever, and I will be down to buying a box of drier sheets every couple of years at most.

Good:  Less money, no waste.  Now that's sustainable.
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Friday, January 21, 2011

Scared Spinach

It is cold here.  I mean 5 inches of snow yesterday, 4 degrees this morning cold.  The kind of cold that makes people like me want to huddle in front of a fire and weep until spring.

So naturally, a couple of weeks ago, I planted spinach.

I put the pots of spinach out in the sunroom to see if they would sprout, knowing that it would take a while, but also knowing that as of yet the sunroom has never dropped below 50 degrees during the day, no matter how cold it is outside.  I had hope.

Yesterday, I went into the sunroom to find that the spinach had sprouted, but all of my little newborn seedlings were root-tail up, with no leaves to be seen.  I figure the poor things started to sprout, took one look at the snow outside, and decided they wanted to go back to bed too.

So I threw some extra humus on top of them and brought them in the house to a cozy windowsill, where today they rewarded me by showing some leaves.

The lesson?  Never argue with the wisdom of a plant.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fleece Socks

By far one of the best projects I have undertaken is making fleece socks for myself and my family.  This project, like so many others, had its roots in an emergency that I was unprepared for, and I learned my lesson accordingly.

A couple of years ago, we had a sewer pipe that runs under our house break.  That would be bad enough under normal circumstances, but the pipe that broke was the one that was embedded in the slab portion of our tri-level home.  As we diagnosed the problem, worked through the insurance coverage, and then invited the nice men with the jackhammer into our house, we were without water to the kitchen for four months.  Even worse, the repair portion of the festivities occurred in the dead of winter, which meant that my downstairs door was left open for most of December as the repair men (who were surprisingly neat for people who were taking a jackhammer to a 12 foot path through the house) ran cords and such out the door to their truck. 

The house was freezing for several weeks, and I got really obsessed with things to keep my feet warm.  I ordered sheerling-lined slippers and knitted, lined socks, but the thing that really helped was a pair of fleece socks I found online.  They retailed for about $15, and I literally wore them and then washed them to wear them again.  I feel kind of bad that my repair men had to look at me wearing the same sweatshirt and socks every day for about six weeks, but I promise I was doing laundry regularly.

I can't afford an entire wardrobe of $15 pairs of socks, so I learned to make my own.  I use Green Pepper pattern 837, which includes sizes for children, youth, women, and men.  A little experimenting led me to alter the pattern to have a longer leg portion.  I also made alterations on the larger sizes to create a wider footbed and wider heel, to accommodate different foot shapes and the fact that fleece can shrink a tad, no matter what they tell you.  The project also improved my sewing skills, as I learned how to work with stretchy fabric and to ease during sewing to accommodate a three dimensional shape (the foot).

My family was incredibly gracious in allowing me to experiment on them to get the patterns just right, and last year I made about 35 pair of socks for myself, Mr. FC&G, and my parents.  This year, I made several pair for the craft fair and for Christmas gifts. 

The Analysis

Fast:  Even with pattern alteration time, you should be able to make a pair of fleece socks in under an hour.  I probably have the process down to 30 minutes.

Cheap:  Unless you are really trying to showcase a design or match plaid, you should be able to make a pair from less than half a yard of fleece, which you can get dirt cheap from the remnant bin at your local fabric store.  Usually, I can make a pair for less than $2 in fleece costs, although I sell them for more than that to factor in the production effort.  (I sell for $12 a pair, which includes sales tax, because I want to make my socks a better bargain than the mass-produced versions.)

Good:  Fleece socks got me through a really bad winter (you can see my entire wardrobe of them hanging on the line above), but my father gave perhaps the best testimonial when he said that his feet were warm in the winter for the first time in his life. 

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Garden Porn

They know how to target us when we are vulnerable.  It has been so long since we've had the real thing, we are dying for a little peek.  And then you open the covers, and there it is:  page after page of plump, rounded flesh and young, tender limbs.  And the prose accompanying it -- "stringless, meaty, round, deep green, very tender pods...."

Beans, people!  It is time for the seed catalogs to arrive, also known as garden porn.

If growing your own veggies is a staple of sustainable living, then growing your own from seed is a further step toward frugality.  In general, even with some across-the-board price increases I've noticed this year, you can pretty much depend on getting a packet of seeds for the same amount you will pay for one or two plants of the same veggie at the greenhouse.  So, if you take care to start your seedlings right, you can dramatically reduce the cost of gardening. 

I generally patronize four companies each year:  Burpee, Stark Brothers, Seeds of Change, and Richters.  All of them have given me great service and great products each year.

My workhorse company is Burpee.  I think Burpee has gotten something of a bum rap from serious gardeners who don't like to think they are buying seed from the same company that puts those racks of hybrid seed in the hardware store.  But, if you are a new gardener, that is exactly what you should be buying -- inexpensive hybrid seed of veggie varieties that are typically very easy to grow.  Later, when you start saving seeds, growing different varieties for different purposes (like paste tomatoes for canning), and generally choosing varieties for their suitability in your microclimate, you will want heirlooms, but your first few gardens should probably lean on inexpensive seed that will let you feel OK if you fail.

But Burpee isn't just hybrids in the hardware store.  This year, I noticed a great deal more heirlooms -- some on every page.  I ordered mostly heirloom seed for my garden from Burpee.  There is a respectable array of organic seed too.  The order came extra-quickly, so I will be able to start my peppers a little early this year.

Stark Brothers is my source for fruit trees.  I got my key lime and my nectarine trees from them (both dwarf), and this year I plan to round out the "orchard" with a lemon and a couple of apple trees.

Seeds of Change is my organic seed source.  They have a number of varieties of seldom-seen plants (like purslane), and they are committed to organic gardening.  That's worth supporting.

Richters is my source for herb plants.  I got my mojito mint and my feverfew from them, and this year I'm thinking about some St. John's Wort. 

I really encourage you to grow something to eat this year, directly from seed.  Pick your favorite veggie, a hard-to-get herb, or something you've never had before.  Watch that little darling go from a tiny pot on your windowsill or under a grow light to something that cheerfully gives you pounds of food.  And join me in my little addiction; you won't be alone.

The Analysis

Fast:  Nothing about gardening is terribly fast, but this one is about the journey as much as the destination.

Cheap:  A single pack of seeds will more than repay you in veggies.  Just looking at some of my Burpee's purchases, a pack of Crimson Giant heirloom radishes, $3.25, will give me more radishes than I can possibly eat, even if I split it into two plantings.  A packet of Sweet Banana heirloom pepper seeds, also $3.25, will likely give me a pound or two of peppers, enough for pizza toppings all summer and a pint or two frozen for winter.

Good:  The healthiest veggie is one that you have grown under conditions you control and harvested minutes before you want to eat it or preserve it.
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

We Did Our First Craft Show

In early December, Mr. FC&G and I did our first craft show.  And while I would hardly consider myself a craft show expert now, I do think it fits nicely with some of the aims of sustainable living.  The best part of the endeavor is that it was a way to make a little money from our handmade items while selling them in a very local context.  What you see above is the earrings my electrical engineer hubby made from resistors.

What you see here are the piles of fleece socks and hand-knitted cowls that I made.  This certainly gave me an outlet for my knitting and fleece addiction.  It also gave us the excuse to launch our brand for these sorts of things.  We are now Carrot Creations, so named because of a running joke that carrots are the finest of all veggies and that everything good can be shorthanded into being called a "carrot."  I think the addition of the new logo on the sign and the price tags gave things a professional look.

So what did I learn from our endeavor?  A few things from this first time out:

1.  Find a show with low or no table rent.  I was lucky that a friend recommended this one, which was a small, friendly show with no table fee; the added traffic drove people into the business that hosted the show, so it was a win/win.  Some shows have substantial fees, and these will be worth it only if we have a lot of inventory that we are sure will sell.

2.  Have a variety of items.  Three was a good number to get people to reach out and touch things, and we did have about 10 percent of the people who visited actually buy something.  I was also challenged to alter my already-altered sock pattern to have S/M/L sizes for both men and women, and that seems to have worked well.

3.  Take something to keep your hands busy.  I knitted a cowl, of course.  People seemed more comfortable if it didn't seem like I was ready to pounce hungrily on them. 

4.  Investigate sales tax.  Before we did this show, I applied for a vendor's license, and I priced my items to include sales tax on a fair price.  This is easy to do with the tax tables in front of you.  I always set a nice round price so I didn't have to make a lot of change, so that meant that my pre-tax prices (which the customer never saw) were always odd (like $10.42), but that's OK.

5.  Price to sell.  For me, this was part of my FC&G philosophy.  I looked around at comparable prices in catalogs, then figured out how to sell my items for less than typical retail.  For example, fleece socks are typically $15 in catalogs, plus tax, shipping, and handling.  I sold mine for $12, including tax.  A little smart shopping for fleece and some production efficiencies on my part meant that customers got some of the savings passed onto them.

Our next step is to start an Etsy store, but we are not very far along in that process.  In the meantime, if you are interested in anything you see here, feel free to email me.  I can check stock, email photos, and arrange for payment.  This will all be easier when we get that Etsy store set up, and I will certainly announce it here when we do!
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fleece Package Bows

Forgive me for giving you a frugality hint that may seem better suited for the pre-Christmas season, but this is really a multi-season tip, and it is simple:  use your fleece scraps for reuseable package bows.

What you see above is a scrap of fleece I thought was particularly pretty.  Since fleece doesn't fray, it doesn't need to be hemmed, so all I did was cut a straight strip off a remnant that I had no other use for.  The stretch, in this case, goes lengthwise down the piece, which seems to work well for tying a snug bow.  I used this one on Christmas and DH and I loved the look, so I plan to be on the lookout for other scraps that will make interesting reusable bows and ribbon.

By the way, take a look at that package.  My mother's frugal idea was to pre-wrap several shirt boxes (or at least the tops) a few years back.  We just open up the lids of these boxes, insert our present, and presto -- a wrapped gift in a reuseable box.  As the pre-wrapped boxes take some wear and tear, we unwrap the top and rewrap it, but we are getting a few years' use out of the wrapping paper instead of just one.  This works best for gifts within the family, where we all know the system.  Others still get gifts that they can rip open to their hearts' content, although they may also get a fleece bow.

The Analysis

Fast:  Reusable wrapping materials mean gift wrapping goes faster, a nice thing at Christmas but applicable all year long for birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays.

Cheap:  Every time I use a fleece bow, I save money on not buying a disposable ribbon and bow.  I've already purchased the fleece, so there is no new investment.

Good:  I like the look of the unique bows as well, so I think this one is a win in all three categories!
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Friday, January 7, 2011

Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Butter

For New Year's weekend, I decided to go all out and make pumpkin ravioli with sage butter using as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible.  It was a pretty time-consuming if yummy task, so I also devised a week-day version that comes together more quickly:

Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Butter:  The Long Version

1.  Prepare pumpkin puree.  I had already done this step a few weeks ago when I decided it was finally time to do something with the pie pumpkins I had cellared from the fall farmer's market.  Five pie pumpkins at 50 cents each gave me four pints of pumpkin puree plus a bunch of seeds to toast.  I needed a pint for this recipe, so that is about 60 cents worth of pumpkin.

2.  Prepare ricotta.  Making ricotta is insanely easy, and I will cover that for you in a future post the next time I make a batch.  This is where the "as local as possible" comes in.  Rather than buying pre-made ricotta, I made my own from hormone-free milk.  The milk was not local, unfortunately, but by making my own cheese I brought one of the processing steps home and eliminated some of the transportation and manufacturing costs.  Ricotta from a half a gallon of milk came in under a dollar, and I used about half the batch, so maybe 50 cents of homemade ricotta.

3.  In a food processor, mix pumpkin puree, ricotta, salt, fresh ground pepper, one clove of garlic, and a dash of nutmeg.  The garlic came from my own garden via my cellar.

4.  Make ravioli.  Basically, these are the same noodles you saw in sage noodle soup, minus the sage.  Roll out sheets of pasta dough, cut into large squares, and put a dollop of the filling in every other square.  Moisten the edges with water and place a clean square of pasta dough on top and seal the edges.  Although my flour and semolina were from the store, I used local eggs, and again, I removed a processing and transportation step from the equation, making these more local.  Cutting and stuffing the ravioli takes some time, though!  I estimate total cost for the pasta at under $1.

5.  Drop ravioli one by one into boiling water and extract them when they float; it takes about 3-5 minutes depending on the thickness of your ravioli.  I do these in waves and take the finished ravioli out with a slotted spoon and place them in a heat-safe bowl on the back of the stove while I cook subsequent batches.

6.  Meanwhile, make sage butter.  This is just butter (about half a cup) with a tablespoon of dried sage in it.  I used fairly expensive but completely local butter, and the sage came from my garden.  Total cost was probably $1 for this.  Dress ravioli with sage butter, toss, and serve. 

This version of the recipe was yummy, but boy did it take some time!  So, I devised a short version that takes out the ravioli step, which is the most time consuming:

The Short Version

1.  Make your pumpkin puree and your ricotta on another day.  The puree will keep indefinitely in the freezer, and the ricotta will keep a week or two in the fridge.

2.  Spray a baking dish with olive oil.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3.  Cook lasagna noodles.  You will probably need about 8-10 to use up your filling mixture.

4.  On each noodle, spread a layer of filling.  Sprinkle with additional ricotta.  Roll up and place seam side down in baking dish.

5.  Sprinkle each roll with sage and top with your favorite cheese.  You might use mozzarella if you want a mild flavor or sharp cheddar if you want a contrast.

6.  Bake about 20 minutes until cheese is melted.

The Analysis

Fast:  The long version took me a couple of hours to make, including time out for the use of some adult language when my pepper mill cap broke, sending peppercorns all over the kitchen.  Nonetheless, I think I now know why ravioli is a special-occasion dish. 

Cheap:  By relying on my own herbs and pumpkin from the farmer's market, I kept costs way down.  Making my own ricotta also saved money.  Total cost for the long version was just over $3.

Good:  The long version with homemade ingredients is far superior to any other version, but it does take some time.  The short version does a nice job of preserving the pumpkin flavor while being a bit easier to put together.
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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Steam Away that Soap Scum

One job I really despise is cleaning the shower.  There are few jobs worse, in my opinion, than scrubbing off dirt and soap scum in a damp, confined space.  Add to this the expense of cleaners, which typically come in an ecological nightmare of a container made of metal and plastic and containing a mix of noxious chemicals and propellants, and this job is pretty low on my list. 

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I do occasionally use those expensive cleaners.  For all their lung-burning faults, they do tend to loosen the scum enough to clean it off.  However, to reduce the use of those chemicals, we use a steam cleaner to clean our shower.  You will see DH (or at least his arms) doing the work above.

Steamers are a great way to clean bathrooms.  They heat and direct a burst of steam at whatever you are cleaning, and ours came with a variety of attachments that let you scrub or scrape or otherwise direct the flow of steam.  Although the initial investment in the equipment will typically set you back around $100 (our unit was a gift from my folks), they require only electricity and water after that, and you get sanitized surfaces with no chemical fumes or residue.  (Warning:  Although you can use your steamer to clean in and around your toilet, don't direct a long-term burst of steam at the gap where the toilet meets the floor, because you could accidentally melt the wax washer if you heat it up too much.  However, a quick run around that area is enough to get the job done and won't harm anything.)

Now, these steamers are not perfect solutions to the cleaning dilemma, as they do take time to set up and heat up.  However, if we do a super-good cleaning of the shower once a month with the steamer and then are diligent about rinsing the shower down once a day with the hand-held shower head (I do this after my shower each day), we have a pretty clean shower, and we only occasionally resort to the canned chemical cocktail to get the job done.

The Analysis

Fast:  Using a steamer is nowhere near as fast as spraying a burst of foam at the problem, but it certainly does a better job.  This is a moderately big cleaning job that takes some time.

Cheap:  Once you have the equipment, you are talking about pennies of electricity and water per use.  You should eventually recoup your investment in foregone chemical cleaners.  The more you use it, the faster it pays itself off.

Good:  Perhaps the best part of the process is knowing that you have a sanitized shower with no chemical fumes or residue.
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