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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Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Cucumbers

The cucumbers finished up a couple of weeks ago, and it was another good cuke year, thanks to the cucumber trellis, picured above.  (Again, another year's photo since I didn't take a picture of cukes this year.)  The ability to grow my cucumbers "up" instead of letting them lie on the ground means that I lose fewer of them to disease or critters, and the vines stay healthy longer.  What you see above is a great example.  That photo is from a year that the vines got some powdery mildew on them, but it didn't affect the fruits, and it didn't kill the plant since the trellises kept them aired out.  I really had no powdery mildew on the cukes this year, and next to no cucumber beetles.

Consequently, I brought in 79 cucumbers totalling 19 pounds, 12 ounces.  I found a mid-season price on non-organic cukes (again!) at 99 cents per pound, making our total value $19.55.  I planted the equivalent of one package of seeds, so $3.69.  Total net value, $15.86. (And remember, this would be higher if organic cukes had been readily available when I wanted them in the store.)

However, cucumbers are another example of the benefits of the garden.  Would I buy 20 pounds of cucumbers if I didn't garden?  Almost certainly not.  But since I did have them, the generated two forms of savings that are hard to quantify:

1.  As long as cucumbers are in season, they form the backbone of my lunch, usually along with some cheese or meat.  As I noted in the linked post, I can have a pretty significant lunch with some tasty additions from the meat and cheese aisles and still bring the meal in under $1.  For me, cucumbers replace sandwich bread or pasta at lunch time.  If they replace, for you, a lunch in a restaurant, the actual savings is even greater.

2.  I put up several jars of cucumber relish this year.  Other years, I put up pickles.  Regardless, these jars will compliment our meals all winter, serve as gifts for friends and family, and perhaps be sold at holiday craft fairs.  The value-add of making a pickle product really boosts the value of the garden.

So, in sum:
2011 Tally to Date: 77.18 lbs of crops; $93.71 saved

Stay tuned:  we still have onions, leeks, and tomatoes to tally when they all finish.
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Monday, September 19, 2011

Homemade Apple Sauce

It has been an amazingly bad garden year around here, as it has been for most of the country.  Insert your favorite regional weather gripe:  too hot, too cold, too much rain, not enough rain, or just general weather funkiness.  In particular, it has been a bad year for fruit.  My key lime tree set about 12 key limes, only to lose all of them during a hot spell.  (It can be too hot for key limes??)  The u-pick strawberry farm had fewer, smaller berries (although they were yummy), and my in-laws report apple trees failing to set fruit.  Indeed, this is borne out by one of my favorite fruit farms, which closed their u-pick apple fields for the year.

However, they did have enough to sell at the farmers' market, and when I asked about the best apples for sauce, the lady asked me how much I wanted to put up, then offered to bring me a half bushel of seconds for a lower price.  Seconds are definitely the way to go for sauce; since you don't need pretty, unblemished apples, you can take ones with small bruises and irregular forms for a lower price.  She brought me a half bushels of mixed varieties of apples, and I paid $18.  True to my requested estimate, this was enough to put up 12 pints of homemade applesauce. 

I loved this project, because I could control the sugar and spice, generating a great end product.  I also tried putting up some apple jelly made with the cores; it didn't set quite as well as I might have liked, but this is never a problem in this house.  Loose jams and jellies are yogurt and coffee flavorings, or pancake and ice cream topping.  No waste here!

Homemade Applesauce

Mixed apples

1.  Wash the apples very well.  I washed them with a dishcloth under running water.  Even organic farms will have to do some spraying and pest control, so you don't want any residue, even if it is a natural product. 
2.  Core the apples and cut into chunks.  Here's a tip from my friend (thanks, S.E.!):  don't peel them.  Boil them until they are soft, and the peels will slip right off.  Run the apples through a ricer, which will remove the remaining skins, seeds, or other nasty parts.  The sauce will be the only thing making it through the holes of the ricer.
3.  Reheat the sauce until nearly boiling, adding sugar and spices to taste.  I used about a half a cup of sugar for 2.5 quarts of sauce, along with about 2 t. cinnamon and 1/2 t. nutmeg.  What you use depends on your apples and your taste.  I canned multiple small batches instead of one big batch because Mr. FC&G and I were working assembly-line fashion.
4.  Can in pint or quart jars, according to your family's need.  Leave about 3/4 inch headspace. For either size, process for 20 minutes in a BW canning bath. 

The Analysis

Fast:  Putting up a half bushel of apples took about 3-4 hours, including the jelly experiment.  Like so many things this time of year, a good evening of canning turns into good food for an entire year.

Cheap:  Just figuring the sauce, my apple costs were 10.6 cents per ounce of sauce, and I spent about $22 total on apples, sugar, spices, and pectin for the sauce plus six 12-ounce jars of "jelly."  I haven't bought store applesauce in years, but I imagine this compares very favorably.

Good:  The best part of this project is customizing the applesauce to your own taste.  I can hardly wait to crack open one of these jars and have applesauce as part of my lunches!
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Friday, September 16, 2011

Extending the Season

The last few nights have been in the 40s here in Ohio, what the weathermen and those with a good outlook on life call "good sleeping weather."  Indeed, after a summer of running both the whole-house AC and the room AC in our bedroom just to be able to stand to sleep there, both our budgets and our bodies are ready for a little peace and quiet and a fleece quilt.

However, our garden doesn't much like "good sleeping weather," especially our sensitive basil.  I want to get a few more weeks out of this plant before I cut it all down for pesto, especially since we lost one plant to wilt earlier this year.  I'll make some pesto this weekend, but with about ten days of great growing weather on the horizon if not more, it is critical that the sensitive crops make it through the cold snap.

So, Mr. FC&G designed this basil cover, made out of a leftover aluminum frame.  He placed it around the basil, then we pull the tarp behind up over the basil and tack it down with  bricks.  First thing in the morning, we uncover the basil and let it get the morning sun, and we cover it before the temps drop at night.  Some places will sell you floating row covers designed to do the same thing, but this was just as good for a single herb bed.

Mr. FC&G also brought two old sliding glass door windows out of the garage and leaned them up against the house, making a makeshift cold frame of sorts to protect the big pots of peppers.  Since the garden got such a late start around here, I don't want to lose the dozens of banana peppers that have just set and got started growing, so this is a good protection for them as well.

In the variable Midwest, this is the season when we count our remaining gardening by the day, and every day is one day closer to self-sufficiency for the winter.

The Analysis

Fast:  Depending on your efforts and number of tender crops, making your own crop protectors might take a bit of time.  I think Mr. FC&G did both installations in about an hour for materials on hand.

Cheap:  Materials around the house plus a little effort means just that much more food that we can bring in this year.

Good:  Basil pesto and peppers are key to our food storage, as they add so much flavor in winter.  Basil pesto will also make a meal if we have pasta and Parmesan in the house, which we usually do.  So these are critical, and saving them is important.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Zucchini

Can you believe that I didn't take a picture of zucchini this year?  I was so busy reveling in their productivity, I didn't snap a picture, so here is one from last year.  Same variety, so same difference, I suppose.

Zucchini was the best crop of the year for me.  My zucchini were prolific and productive, giving me fruit after fruit until they finally gave up last week.  No cucumber beetles, no squash bugs (knock wood), and the little bit of powdery mildew that developed didn't slow them down.  The zucchini were easy to get young and tender, and I froze a good bit in addition to having them as a component of dinner more nights than not for about two months.

I grew 3 plants, using half a pack of seeds that cost $3.25, so $1.63 in seed costs.  From that, I harvested 44 zucchini, and only one was of the large, shred-it-now, baseball bat size.  The total haul was 22 pounds, 2 oz. 

Price?  In the middle of the season, zucchini was everywhere.  But if I wanted organic zucchini, I would have had to go to Trader Joe's (which usually has really good prices for organics) and paid $2.99 a pound.  The organic zucchini were packaged in little foam trays and covered with plastic wrap, which just goes to show that if you make one responsible decision, something else slips.

I know, I could have purchased zucchini for less.  But the reality is, I wanted organic zucchini so I feel comfortable eating the skins, and I would have paid the $2.99 if I didn't have my plants.  So, that's my price.

Total value of my harvest:  $66.14.  Subtract my seed costs, and I have a profit of $64.51.  Yeah, zucchini!

But wait, we're not done here.  This is where a strict tally of food weight and cost doesn't tell the whole story.  Yes, I brought in a lot of zucchini.  But the real value of zucchini is in what it displaces from the regular budget.  A zucchini pie or batch of zucchini orzo replaces an $18 emergency run to Noodles & Co., a $6 pound of grass-fed beef that Mr. FC&G would cook up for dinner, or any number of other, more expensive dinner options.  Zucchini serves as "meat" in some dishes and stretches others to create more servings.  I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that, for each of the the eight or nine weeks I was harvesting zucchini, they knocked at least $10-15 off the food bill by becoming a component of two or three meals. I would say I have at least 6-7 more meals down in the freezer in the form of frozen zucchini, each of which might displace $5 worth of more expensive food.  Tally that, and our real zucchini savings (not reflected below) might come in at $140 off the year's food bill.

That is the real lesson of gardening for sustainability; it is often more about what you don't buy than the value of what you produce.

2011 Tally to Date: 57.43 lbs of crops; $77.85 saved
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Monday, September 12, 2011

What is Sustainability?

Lately, we've had lots of new visitors via the BlogHer network and the Survival Mom blog ring, and to all of you, I say "welcome!"  I thought it might be helpful to pause in our regularly-scheduled garden harvest and winter prep to define sustainability.

The vocabulary used in talking about sustainable living is fluid.  Academics will use terms one way, those with a political perspective another, and those just chatting over the back fence still another.  While there will be some commonalities among them all, I wanted to share the personal definition that I use so you know what I mean when I write.

Sustainability:  If something is "sustainable," that literally means that it can be sustained, or continued.  I use this term to indicate a practice that can be continued indefinitely with the resources on hand or with those that can be reasonably expected.  For example, if I plan to buy a house, I need to either pay for it with cash on hand (without depleting emergency and retirement funds), or I need to only take a mortgage I can anticipate being able to service from earnings or savings for quite some time, even if I or Mr. FC&G lose clients, become unemployed, or have to tap our funds for another reason.  This will obviously result in our buying a house that is far less expensive than what the mortgage broker would tell us we qualify for (trust me on this!), but the expense is sustainable.

There are four major categories of resources I consider on this blog, and they explicitly or  implicitly are reflected in the FC&G analysis:

Health:  Your health is paramount.  It is a resource that, once lost, is difficult to get back.  I could tell you to save money by eating off a famous golden arches dollar menu, but that would not sustain your health. I often will tell you to eat organic, even if it means greater expense or greater time out in the garden (which is exercise to improve your health, so get out there!)

Money:  Money is another resource that is finite, so we pay attention to its use.  I will not advocate spending more than you have or taking loans for any but a major purchase, like the house mentioned above.

Time:  Time is perhaps the ultimate non-renewable resource, so we have to get the biggest impact for time invested.  Many a project gets marked down on the analysis because it takes too long to occur regularly if you have jobs and family commitments -- it is not sustainable -- but I might include them because they are particularly pleasant or nice to do if you have downtime.

Natural Resources and Impact:  This is always fighting territory.  Is it more sustainable to deal with the global oil supply by getting off the grid and insisting on all solar or nothing, or should we drill, baby, drill?  What is the cost/benefit analysis of different pest control options when weighing garden production versus potential run-off into the water table?  What should you wear -- cotton, wool, hemp? -- and what is the impact on you and your community?  You will have to weigh your options, as I do mine, and realize that responsible use of natural resources is a balancing act, not an all-or-nothing position.  You will see that I lean toward using the resources we have on hand in a way that makes them last as long as possible and which has as much positive and as little negative impact on you, your family, and your community as possible, but you need to apply your values too.

Sustainable living is not a one-time decision, it is a continual process of trying, adjusting, and tweaking.  No family's solution will be exactly the same as any other, and each will make decisions based on belief, philosophy, political perspective, research, and experience.  To me, that's what makes it fun.
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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Basil Beer Bread

As I have noted almost from the beginning of this blog, making your own bread is a super-quick and easy way to save tons of money and have greater control over your food.  This is especially true if you like "artisinal" or specialty breads that may cost as much as $5 a loaf. 

With a sudden chill descending on the Midwest, it is officially time to start baking again.  This recipe uses up some of the fresh basil that is still growing in the garden.  It also uses up some of your extra beer, which is a win for me.

(Yes, I can hear the groans:  "extra" beer?  Mr. FC&G and I are not big beer drinkers.  We typically buy a six-pack at the beginning of summer, drink as much as we want all season, and are left with 3-4 bottles to get rid of somehow.  If you don't have this problem, I can assure you that this recipe works just fine with bargain-basement brands of beer that are purchased specifically for the purpose.)

This recipe for Basil Beer Bread is one of my favorites.  I adapted it from a recipe in Real Simple magazine.  The original recipe called for 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, which sounds yummy, but which I never seem to have at the same time I have basil and beer in the house.  It also called for all white flour, which I think is a missed opportunity to get some whole grains in the diet.  Note that the beer flavor carries over in a definite but not-unpleasant way, so you can change the flavor of the bread by experimenting with different beers.

Basil Beer Bread
3 1/4 cups flour (I use 2 cups unbleached all-purpose, 1 cup whole wheat, and 1/4 cup flax meal)
1 T bread machine yeast
1 1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste)
12 oz. beer (I had Land Shark in the fridge, so Fins Up!)
1 cup chopped basil

Place all ingredients in bread machine and let them mix.  Note that the dough may be a little "gloopy" -- that is OK.  When they are mixed, dump out onto a sheet or pizza pan greased with olive oil, and let sit for about 15-20 minutes.  (I like this step to give the yeast some time to get going, even though it is not in the original recipe.  If it is gloopy, it won't really rise, but it will get going.)

Bake at 400 for 40-45 minutes until lightly browned.  You will be surprised at how much it rises during baking!

The Analysis

Fast:  I figure on an hour and 15 minutes for this recipe, of which about 15 minutes are prep and 15 minutes are "letting it sit."  I made a loaf while I canned something else, so it isn't a high-focus activity.

Cheap:  Your beer is your big budget variable here; everything else should come in at under $1.50, especially if you grow your own basil.  If you contribute a $1.50 beer, you are under $3.00 for this loaf.  Try beating that at the store or bakery.  In fact, try finding this at the store or bakery!

Good:  This is a great bread to go alongside a nice soup, like my Cheesy Potato Soup, or it makes great "dipping" bread alongside an Italian meal or as a snack.
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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Butternut Squash

OK, now we're talkin'!

I have told you garden defeat after garden defeat this year, waiting for the day that I could share a success.  And now that so many of the crops are finishing up, I finally have some successes to share!  (Look for cukes and zukes very soon!)
This was my first year growing butternut squash, and I am certainly not disappointed.  I started a half a pack of seeds to come up with three or four plants, or a half a row, that I grew as an experiment.  Not only were they very productive, but we really love them.  I will have to see how quickly we go through the pile that is "down cellar" this winter, but there seems a real possibility that I will grow a whole row of squash next year and cut back on the potatoes and onions (which is another tale of woe waiting for another day).

The four plants gave their predicted 4-5 squash per plant, for a total of 16 squash weighing in at 17 pounds, 10 ounces total.  I would have had the total earlier, but once I thought I had finished my harvest with 14 squash, the plants set fruit again, and yesterday I brought in 3 more squash.  I spent $1.63 on seed for this harvest, since I only planted half a pack of seeds.  I have seed for next year, and I have saved some seed from this crop to see if I can start a microclimate-specific variety.

Had I purchased these in the grocery at the same time I was harvesting the bulk of the crop, I would have paid $0.79 per pound, and I would not have been able to get organic varieties in my normal grocery haunts. Once again, if I want something local and organic, I needed to grow it myself.

17.625 pounds of squash at $0.79 per pound is $13.92 in value.  Minus $1.63 in seed costs, and we have a profit of $12.29.

2011 Tally to Date: 35.31 lbs of crops; $13.34 saved
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