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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