Monday, December 31, 2012

Maple Sugar Candy

(So, I took my own advice to heart about trying to simplify the Christmas season, and I haven't blogged in a week.  My apologies.  But I hope everyone has had a wonderful start of the season!)

One of my favorite candy recipes is maple candy.  As you might know, sap from the maple tree is a wonderful thing.  Boil it for a (long) while and it become syrup.  Boil it some more, and it become a mass of sugar, but with a texture so wonderful that it is a great candy.

The wonderful thing about this candy is the cost savings (well, and the flavor, but that has to be tasted to be believed).  You can order boxes of maple sugar candy, pressed into little maple leaf shapes, for $20-30 for about two dozen pieces.  Or, you can make your own at home for the cost of a bottle of maple syrup.  This recipe works very well in candy molds, but when I'm pressed for time, I spread it and break it like brittle.

Maple Sugar Candy
Maple Syrup (Be sure to get real maple syrup -- maple flavored topping, like pancake topping, will not work)

Heat maple syrup in a sauce pan until 235 degrees on a candy thermometer.  Remove from heat and let cool to 175 degrees without stirring, then stir with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes until the mixture loses its gloss, lightens up a bit, and becomes thick and creamy.

Spoon into molds or pour into foil-lined pan and let cool completely.  Remove from molds or break into small pieces.  You might store it in the refrigerator so it doesn't become sticky due to a warm room or humidity, but since this is basically sugar, it keeps forever.

The Analysis
Fast:  I love this recipe for its speed.  It probably goes from bottle to cooling process in about 30 minutes.  If I had a houseful of guests or kids (or guests with kids) begging for me to make more candy for the holidays, this is what I would make.

Cheap:  Way cheaper than ordering the fancy stuff, and you have the opportunity to buy local maple syrup if you have the chance.  Here's a fun fact:  the lower the grade of the maple syrup, the less expensive it is, but the more maple flavor it imparts to the candy.  So don't go buying a "fancy" grade -- just whatever you can get that is organic and local, if possible.

Good:   A burst of maple flavor in a bite that is somehow creamy and melting.  I like to pop a piece in my mouth after a meal to stave off the sugar craving.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Saving Your Sanity at Christmas

So, it is December 23.  Christmas Eve Eve.  If you celebrate Christmas, you have all of the prep work done, and you are settling down to a little recreational internet surfing before joining calmly in some festivities, right?

No?  Of course not.  Me either.

If you celebrate Christmas, the period of time between Thanksgiving and January 2 can rapidly turn from being a time for joyful celebration into a part-time job you didn't really ask for.  And, judging by some of the posts I've seen on Facebook from some of my friends, the season is bringing with it its standard array of frayed nerves and mood swings.  That's why I want to talk about a kind of sustainability we rarely talk about here -- saving your own sanity.

Christmas is some high-stakes stuff.  Religiously, you have the story of a miracle more precious and perfect than any that has ever occurred.  On the secular front, you have Currier & Ives, Norman Rockwell, and the entire cartoon and stop-motion animation industries conjuring up pictures of the perfect family holiday.  Even if you don't celebrate Christmas at all, you can't avoid the pressure -- it is there in the aisles of your grocery store (who doesn't need some extra tinsel?) and on your car radios and in your newspaper advertising supplements.  It is enough to make anyone bonkers.

Add to that the fact that annual holidays really can bring on the melancholy.  If we look back, we see Christmases spent with relatives now departed or with innocence and hope that we may no longer have.  If we look forward, we might fear what we could lose in the year to come, or what storms we might have to weather before we put up that tree again.  (This is a big one for me.)  It takes a better yogi than I am to stay perfectly balanced in the present.

So, as my gift to you, let me offer a few tips for how to get through the holiday with a minimum of mental angst and a maximum of joy.  Remember, your sanity is a limited resource you must use in a sustainable way too!

Limit the Christmas Music/Specials:  Now, if you're one of those people who only gets happier the more carols that play on your iPod, you'll want to ignore me on this one, but I suggest you limit the number of Christmas TV specials you watch and Christmas songs you hear.  The reason?  I don't want to be a Scrooge, but these reminders of the season, by their very nature, bring back memories and tug at the heart strings with holiday reminders.  If you find yourself thinking of your departed aunt every time you listen to her favorite Christmas song or tearing up whenever you watch the special your kids loved when they were small, do yourself a favor and turn it off.  Save your exposure for things that really make you happy.

Stay Off Social Media:  While we're limiting our media, this may be a good time to place a rationing system around your use of Facebook and the like.  I know it is tempting to spend part of your time off work continually hitting "refresh" on your phone, but you need to limit the number of times you see examples of Christmas perfection posted by your friends.  It brings a tear to anyone's eye to see the picture of four generations of women, all gathered in the kitchen with well-starched aprons, happily making cookies.  Try to remind yourself that your friend posted that photo not because it is an everyday occurrence in their happy lives, but because they thought, "Dang, I've never seen that kind of thing happen in my life -- better snap a picture and post it to Facebook and prove it actually happened!"

Take Some Shortcuts:  We've all read the holiday stories of cooks who make a pie for every holiday guest so everyone will have their favorite, or of those who have time to paint little decorated packages on their fingernails, complete with bows and nametags.  (Bonus Tip:  Stay off Pinterest!)  You don't have to do this.  If you hate making pie and you feel you must make one, make ONE.  Everyone's just going to have to make do with the flavor you chose.  Don't allow yourself to feel pressured into doing everything you think everyone  expects just to make a perfect holiday.  Which leads me to my next tip...

Remember that Santa Had Elves:  Even the mythical Big Guy didn't try to throw a celebration without help.  Now is your time to ask people to help you with the tasks you think are essential.  Go ahead, ask your mother-in-law to bring dessert; if you ask her to bring that specialty her son or daughter always loved growing up, I'll bet she says "yes."  If you feel you must be the sole host or hostess of an event, for heaven's sake wait until the summer barbeque, when you don't have do a million other things besides.

Allow Yourself to Remember:  Even if you have the logistics mastered, Christmas can bring some strong emotions, particularly if your family is missing a loved one.  Give yourself time to remember, and allow those feelings to be bittersweet.  Honor that person in a way that is meaningful to you; hang an ornament that reminds you of them, or make their favorite recipe, and invite this person back into the celebration.

Save Something for You:  "Christmas is for children."  "Christmas is for other people."  Yes, the spirit of these sayings is very true and well-taken.  But if you get wrapped up in making a holiday for others, you will miss it yourself.  Pick something that you look forward to; one thing for me is Christmas Eve dinner with just my husband.  Then, tell everyone that this part of the celebration is important to you, and you really want to see it happen.  After all, it is important to give, but it is important to nourish your own soul so you can keep giving in the New Year.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and the Best of the Season to All!
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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Barriers to Biking

Today, I came across this wonderful post on 5 Barriers to Women Bicycling More.  As my part of Ohio braces for the first snowfall of the year, I find myself yearning for a little errand on my bike, knowing that I will be waiting until Spring for that to happen.

The article breaks down the barriers to women biking into five main types:

  • Risk
  • Time
  • Convenience
  • Vanity
  • Community
Please check out the whole article for more analysis, but I must admit that I have forgone biking for all of these reasons from time to time.  And, with the possible exception of vanity, I think they are equally valid for men, too.

For me, one of the top barriers is risk, including comfort issues.  I won't bike in the snow or ice.  Truthfully, I won't bike with temps in the 50s or lower.  I won't bike in the rain.  I know there are readers from very bike-centric cities that are laughing at me for this, but I don't always feel safe or comfortable in these conditions.  Add onto that the fact that some trips don't feel physically safe to me to do alone.  For example, one errand I could run involves a bike path that is very secluded; I will bike it happily with Mr. FC&G, but I won't bike alone.

Second for me is definitely vanity.  And, unlike some bikers, I have no belief that I have to be wearing spandex and biking shoes to get on my bike; I bike in A-line skirts and chunky heels half of the time.  However, there are times that I don't feel like re-doing my hair when I get to my destination, or I just don't care to bike to a meeting or a class and have to commit to a ponytail for the whole day.

Finally, there is community.  As I noted in my post on Walk Score (which has expanded into Bike Score), there is something wonderful about a community that embraces walking and biking as viable types of transportation.  One of the things I love about Key West is the bike culture.  Everyone goes everywhere on a bike, so there is no question in your mind that you will find a place to chain up your bike or that the motorists will be unaware of the possibility of bikers (so, overlapping with risk).  Also, the casual culture and the warm environment means that you will probably be wearing flip flops and comfy skirts and ponytails anyway, just to handle the climate.  There is less call to look "professional" on a daily basis (although I do love dressing up for clients, so I would miss it). The culture of your community makes a huge difference.

So what do you think?  What is standing in the way of you getting on a bike for an errand or trip each week?  Sound off below!
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Monday, December 17, 2012

Sustainable Pin: Buckeye Bark

I'm not sure how sustainable any project is the week before Christmas, you know?  I mean, if you were going to hand-make all of your gifts, you would have done so already.  If you were going to grow and preserve your own edibles for the feast, in most parts of the country you would have been done with that task months ago.  If you are working on things now (as I am), you are trying to get some holiday treats together without going insane while you try to prep for two three-day work weeks in a row coming up.  (Three-day work weeks just wreak havoc with a freelancer's schedule, but that's OK.)

So, this week, it seemed like a good time to try out one of the many, many, peanut-butter-and-chocolate-themed recipes I've pinned to Pinterest.  This one is Buckeye Bark from Live Sigma Kappa.  Go ahead, take a look at the original recipe on that site.

I have to say, this is a pretty great little recipe.  It comes together much faster than traditional buckeyes, which require rolling the peanut butter balls and then hand-dipping them in chocolate.  This peanut butter center seems to stay a bit softer than some buckeys, but that might have been due to the peanut butter I chose.  I purposely bought a very creamy brand, but I think if I used my usual somewhat-gritty "natural" brand, I might have come out a bit closer to the center of a Reeses Cup.  That said, this center mixture would make an amazing peanut butter frosting on a homemade chocolate cake.....

One warning:  This bark splits into fairly big chunks, or at least it did for me.  That, and the fact that the peanut butter doesn't really adhere the two big chocolate slabs together indelibly, and you have a treat that can get a bit crumbly and require some finger-licking.  I don't think that's a problem, but you might not want to serve this at your swankiest holiday party.

The Analysis

Fast:  Much faster than traditional buckeyes, with the same good taste.  I'd say you can whip this up in about an hour, counting the numerous trips to the freezer for hardening in between layers.  (Although maybe more patience than I have is a virtue.)

Cheap:  I can't say that this is any cheaper than the traditional recipe, but it is certainly cheaper than buying all of your candy from a gourmet store.

Good:  Oh, my heavens.  I think I gain weight every time I look at the picture of this stuff.  I can't imagine anything nicer than making some of this for my family; this might be a really good time to make up a batch of this decadence, and then let those you love lick the bowl when you're done.
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Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: November

I thought you guys might get a kick out of our Christmas card picture for the year, featuring the seldom-seen Mr. FC&G doing his best American Gothic microfarmer pose. You will notice that I am wearing my very expensive, lined, homemade apron that I slaved over last spring.

But really, there you have it.  November's harvest slowed to a trickle, as you would expect it to.  A little bit of greens, a couple ounces of leeks, a couple of peppers salvaged before I dumped the plants in the compost.  This time of year makes me so sad, as a gardener.  I mean, yeah, I get the whole "circle of life" thing.  I've seen The Lion King.

"Look, Simba -- everything the sunlight touches is our kingdom.  Except, over there, that's the neighbor's yard, so we can't microfarm there.  And that's a suburban intersection, so the city will have a fit if we dig that up.  But across the street is a nice, respectable microfarm garden, and nearby are the bike paths we will ride again in spring...."

Something like that.

Anyway, with less than a dollar of harvest this month, I present you with the tallies.  The only thing I can really point out is that I'm sailing along at about a 237% return on investment, which isn't too shabby.

2012 Tally to Date
158.0625 lbs. total harvested
$466.17 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$269.52 profit to date

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Not Quite Hemingway: The Office Tour

About two years ago, I wrote about my attempts to weed out my clothes closet, and I asked the question Is Organization Frugal?  I do think it is, and this time I wanted to share with you my attempts to clean out my office for its multiple purposes.
Bookshelves on the entry wall for work reference, and cube shelving for
Carrot Creations sewing/crocheting supplies.

Full disclosure:  my office had become a mess.  While I was running Hilltop Communications, working as a college administrator, starting Carrot Creations, and running a household, I operated on the "bag system."  Every job had a bag or rack or something, and I picked up what I needed to work.  But my work was growing less and less efficient, and it was time to do more with my time through the power of organization.  Once I quit the second shift job at the college, I thought the time was right to reorganize.

I have been taken with Ernest Hemingway's writing room in Key West since I toured it.  (And if you couldn't see that coming, given my love of Key West, you must be new here -- so welcome!)  Away from the main house and surrounded by vegetation, it was an ideal oasis.  His writing room, at least as it is now displayed for the public, features his typewriter in the middle at a table from which he could have viewed hunting trophies on the wall, books, and the magnificent view from the windows.  I really wanted something similar for myself.

Not hunting trophies, but the view of a few "wild animals" -- actually
stuffed animals from my father -- cheers me up considerably.
So the first task was surrounding myself with books.  I sorted through every single book in the office, and I sold about a box full.  But I was left with quite an amount!  (Do you know how many books you accumulate when you are both an academic and a writer?)  So, I did actually spend some money and replaced some old prefab office store shelves with these nice teal shelves with a narrower profile, and then I more or less lined parts of the room with them.  I can see from my desk where the reference book I need is for any project.

I also rededicated a pretty bookshelf I have to the Carrot Creations production efforts, along with a small desk and filing cabinet.  This allows me to work on these projects and wrap shipments without destroying my writing work.

The main workstation is well-lit and features a huge monitor -- a luxury.
My main desk is finally available for actual writing, although I will always have piles of projects around -- that's just the way I work.  But I am happy to say that I can look out one of my two windows, see the television and my stuffed animal "coworkers" and use my wide screen monitor in comfort.  I made sure I had good task lighting all around to cut down on the headaches.

Another luxury is the workspace desk, which includes a nice large blank space for me to write longhand (yes, dear children -- Palmer penmanship and all), edit hard copies, and conduct phone interviews.  Although I do keep a few things on this side of the office, I try to keep it fairly organized so that I'm not taking interview notes on my lap.  If you look closely, what was once a pull-out keyboard tray on that desk has been converted to a charging station for my laptops and AlphaSmart, so I can pull any of those out and go.

Workspace (project in progress in large red folder), "ego wall," and hidden
laptop charging shelf in view.
Finally, I do have a corner for my papasan lounge chair, affectionately known around here as the "narcolepsy chair" because of its ability to put anyone to sleep at any time.  More than once, I have been unable to sleep at night in my bed, but coming in to sit in the papasan has done the trick.  It is kind of a routine around here for Mr. FC&G and I -- if you wake up alone one morning (and didn't go to bed that way), start checking comfy chairs, couches, and the spare bedroom for the party who drifted overnight.

I am loving the peace and quiet of my office.  Not just the literal quiet, but the intellectual quiet that comes from organization.  Even if I get up at 5:30 in the morning (which has happened now and again) and decide to go to work, I have a space that doesn't jangle my nerves and which lets me be productive.  In fact, I think I am working faster and more efficiently than ever before.  It may not have a view of palm trees, but my take on a Hemingway office has turned out just fine!

A nice place to sit and read.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Friends are the Best Renewable Resource

Well, I had my post all planned today, and I even hit the office early to write it, but I had a surprise waiting in my mailbox from an amazing woman:  Katy Wolk-Stanley.

I've never met Katy in "real life," but I feel I know her well through her blog, The Non-Consumer Advocate.  It is a wonderfully-entertaining blog; seriously, go check it out.  We'll wait.

Katy writes about her journey following The Compact, a lifestyle that minimizes the amount of new things one purchases.  Although this has Katy darning her share of socks, it also leads to some highly-entertaining visits to Goodwill, and some DIY furniture spruce-ups that are worthy of HGTV.  If you only looked at the "after" pictures on Katy's blog, you would swear she spends all of her time and money shopping in high-end stores.  Instead, she spends her time working as a nurse, blogging, and raising her family, and she spends extra money allowing her sons life-changing trips to Japan.  How's that for a cool mom?

Recently, Katy offered to run a 125x125 ad, for free for the month of December, to anyone with an Etsy store.  I took her up on the offer, and I had my best sales day to date the day she posted the ad; traffic figures suggest that she is in part responsible for this.  Then, when I couldn't seem to get text to appear on my ad image, she altered it so that my shop name appeared, as you see above.  She gave of her time to help out a stranger, and that is a pretty amazing thing.

When I send out notices from my Etsy store, I say "friends are the best renewable resource."  I really have received some tangible demonstration of this through Katy, and I plan to follow her popular blog for as long as she cares to write it.

Won't you help me show her some love and click over to her site?  I can't wait to see what she's done with her latest Goodwill find, or to learn more about how she is living one of the richest lives you can imagine on the resources she has available.

Thank you, Katy!
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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Bricks and Mortar Method To Financial Sustainability

Like many writers in the sustainable homemaking space, I'm guilty of writing more about saving and extending resources than I am about gaining more, particularly when it comes to money.  Oh, sure, I write about how to get more produce out of your garden or more fleece when you go to the fabric store, but I don't spend as much time as I might on how to make more money.  This is an oversight on my part, because part of the sustainability equation is increasing your resources.

Think of it this way:  "sustainability" means nothing more or less than a system that can keep going for the foreseeable future because its rate of use of its resources does not exceed how quickly the resources are made available.  If we were talking about using our cars, we would say that our driving habits were sustainable if we could make it to all of our commitments and errands with the gas we can put in our tanks on our gas budget.  When gas prices go up, we either have to decrease our driving or increase our gas budget to keep the system sustainable.

The same is true with your income, and for this, I like to think of my approach as the "bricks and mortar" system of making money.  Full disclosure:  I am speaking from the perspective of a small business owner, but I think those of you with full-time or part-time employment can adapt this system as well.  Certainly, I use this thought process no matter where my income comes from.

Your income derives from two sources.  First are the "bricks."  These are the building blocks of your financial fortune, and you can't build your financial fortress without them.  For me, each metaphorical brick is a large project; each brick represents a commitment to a large chunk of work that will pay well.  I need to be sure that I have a steady stream of bricks coming in, so for me that means cultivating good anchor clients who will feed me a reasonably steady stream of work over the course of a year.  (Some of them read this blog, so let me go ahead and say, "thank you!")  If you are employed full-time, your bricks might be your biweekly paychecks or your base number of hours you are scheduled to work each pay period.  An adjunct professor might think of each class she teaches as a brick.  The point is, your bricks are your large chunks of income that are more or less dependable.

This is where most of us stop, but the strength of your fortress lies not only with your bricks, but with your mortar.  To really have a sustainable income, you need to fill in the gaps with other projects and income sources that can help you hold things together.  For me, a lot of my "mortar" comes from my smaller clients (income-wise).  These are the clients, some long-term and some one-time, who send me smaller projects or one-off opportunities.  When I feel like I have a gap between "brick" projects, you can be sure I make the rounds of old and new clients who might have some "mortar" available.

My mortar is also made up of extras from my "brick" projects, like add-on projects from clients who might be having a seasonal rush or need extra help.  Also, I get my mortar from my Etsy shop, Carrot Creations.  You could easily do likewise by picking up a part-time holiday job, selling some garden produce, or doing any number of other interesting short-term projects, like becoming a poll worker on election day.

As I read the financial news, I see an economy that is changing here in the U.S.  I think more and more of us will be constructing our own financial empires with multiple jobs and projects that we knit together to make a  sustainable income.  Your reaction to that might be dread, or it might be excitement.  For me, I like the challenge of putting together a sustainable income; I just need to mind my bricks and mortar.
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Friday, November 23, 2012

Coupon Code for Carrot Creations

Happy Thanksgiving to the readers of Fast, Cheap, and Good!

If you've followed me this year (or even if you haven't!), you know the value of sustainable living.  Part of that is supporting small businesses who make products with care.  I hope you find my store, Carrot Creations, to be a good example of this!

In honor of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, I'm offering a 10% off sale for the readers of this blog.  Just use coupon code CYBER2012 at Carrot Creations.  Here you will find a great selection of yoga socks for your winter yoga, dance, and Pilates practice, plus fleece socks to warm up your feet and other sustainable living products.

Thank you for joining me on this journey!

11/27  Thank you for participating in my sale!  This coupon code is now closed.  Please watch the blog for future specials.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October

Well, it is nearly Thanksgiving, and I am grateful.  I'm grateful for a garden that so far this year has more than doubled my financial investment into it, which is a darn sight more than my other investments have done.  I'm grateful for the chance to be out in the sun and the soil.  And I'm grateful that my garden continues to produce as the fall ends and the winter begins.  

In October, the garden finished up its outdoor harvest.  A couple of pounds of potatoes.  Some peppers.  Some greens, some beans, and the first of the leeks.  A few potatoes that grew up as volunteers.  Basically, a couple of pounds of produce.

In October, we moved the gardening efforts inside in earnest, with the next few months dedicated to the things we can get from sunroom containers and outdoor cold frames.  But I will be especially grateful when it is time to fork that soil again.

2012 Tally to Date
157.8415 lbs. total harvested
$8.22 value of harvest from October
$465.31 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$268.66 profit to date
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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Winter Garden

Well, the summer plants and vines are all on the compost heap, the extra produce is stored or preserved, and our garden has shrunk to the size of the sunroom, the cold frame, and the sunny windows.  It is time for winter gardening.

Winter is such a sad time in the garden, but it is also my chance to get just a bit more produce out of my gardening efforts and add more fresh vegetables to our diets.  Plus, having something living and growing helps make it easier for me to get through the long winter.

So what do we have growing on the microfarm as Thanksgiving approaches?

Root crops:  As you can see in the photo, I have a pot of garlic merrily growing in the sunroom.  I don't need more garlic; in fact, I harvest more garlic each year than we will ever eat.  But I'm curious to see how big these might get in a pot of really great soil in sunroom.

Also, the container potatoes finally sprouted and are growing in a large pot in the sunroom.  I've already gotten to put an extra layer of soil around their stems and need to do so again this weekend.  My hope and plan is to get one container going, then start another container with any sprouted potatoes from the bin, etc., etc., so I always have a rotating crop of potatoes.

Greens:  My greens are really failing this year.  Last year, I was able to grow a crop of lettuces all winter long in the sunroom; this year, both large containers of greens I brought inside from outside have withered and died.  I will plant again.

Outdoor crops:  We have a cold frame filled with little leeks that are doing fine.  There are also some carrots out there that will probably overwinter so I can harvest in spring.

Herbs:  We have two large sage bushes that we can harvest from most of the winter if our supply of dried sage is used up.  There is also a thyme plant that I cut back in the fall but which appears to be making it through the initial cold weather just fine.  On the feverfew front, I have a plant that is pretty happy on the windowsill, just waiting to help me avoid headaches.

What are you growing this winter?
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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Quick Sweet and Sour Beef

Well, I hesitated to post this, not least because this is one of the least photogenic things I've ever cooked.  Meals that look like stew are, at the very best, only a passable photo subject, and this one cooks up looking downright nasty.  Somewhere, there is a photographer that knows how to take a beauty shot of beef stew, but I am not that person.

But this is a truthful kind of blog, and I did want to share this idea because I have now made it, at Mr. FC&G's insistence, twice in two weeks.  This, friends, is Quick Sweet and Sour Beef.

It is very simple.  Take a package of stew meat or another cheap cut, put it in the Crock Pot, cover with a jar of peach salsa, and cook.  I cook mine on high for four hours, but you will have to adjust for your own slow cooker; if you are leaving this while you go to work, 8-10 hours on low is probably perfect.

The slow cooking plus the acids in the salsa soften the texture of the meat, so you can get away with using cheaper cuts.  I like this, because I'd much rather buy a cheap cut of grass-fed, hormone-free beef than a better cut of CAFO-raised for the same price.

The peach salsa gives it a nice sweet and spicy flavor.  Mr. FC&G has been devouring this over spaghetti, but I think it would go very nicely over brown rice too.

The Analysis

Fast:  I think this takes less than 60 seconds of hands-on prep time, plus your cooking.

Cheap:  The whole point is to use a cheaper cut of meat and then cook it "low and slow," as they say on the cooking shows.  This will get less expensive next canning season, because it looks like I'm buying a peck of peaches and laying in some homemade salsa; right now, we are buying jarred salsa.

Good:  It has the endorsement from Mr. FC&G, and it is saving me from meal prep during a week when I am very busy with work.
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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are tricky to measure.  I typically don't account for any of the fresh herbs I use, even though those would really drive up the total of my garden.  This year, I was able to add fresh oregano, basil, thai basil, sage, dill, thyme, and mint to my dishes, all by walking out into my garden.

On the other hand, I do try to account for the herbs I dry or otherwise would have to buy in dried form.  That netted me nearly $30 in herb savings, namely:

Dill:  At the beginning of the year, I harvested 12 oz. of volunteer dill, and I harvested a few more batches of "purposeful" dill for the rest of the year.  This gave me about two spice jars of dried dill put away, which would have cost $3.39 each at the store if I had bought the organic spice.

Thyme:  Likewise, I have a full jar of dried thyme that would have cost $3.39 at the store.  I have the possibility of harvesting and drying more, because the plant is fairly cold hardy.

Basil:  Basil was fairly tricky, because I used a ton fresh, and I froze a lot in oil.  Sometimes, I count this by the price of prepared pesto, but this year I used the price for fresh greens, because my store didn't have those little clamshells of "fresh" herbs.  I had 12 oz. of fresh basil that I I froze.

Lavender:  My 3 oz. of lavender buds will keep the house smelling nice this year and keep me from buying potpourri.

Feverfew:  Even though I eat my feverfew fresh, I priced a $7.89 bottle of 180 capsules that would be my option if I weren't growing it myself.

My other mystery is how to count my St. John's Wort.  I grew a ton of it and hurried to make the extract, and I really benefited from taking it, mood-wise.  Unfortunately, it didn't play ball with the rest of my system, causing some female side effects.  In retrospect, this makes sense as women sometimes take St. John's Wort as a hormone replacement herb during menopause; I'm not at that point, so those warnings didn't seem to apply to me.  But certainly my system was confused, and I had to discontinue.  Right now, there is no price in this tally for St. John's Wort.  

So here we stand.  Going into the month of October, we stand at a $260.44 profit for the year, with October still to account for.

2012 Tally to Date
155.404 lbs. total harvested
$29.58 value of harvest of herbs
$457.09 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$260.44 profit to date
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Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Sustainable Car

I've had a great deal of fun on Facebook today celebrating my car's 15th birthday.  Fifteen years ago, I took delivery of my brand new car.  I was so thrilled to get my navy blue sedan; I've always loved four-door cars (in obvious rebellion against my strictly-two-door parents), and I so much wanted a car in my favorite color.

In the intervening years, she has served me well, lasting until I can (hopefully) see the day when I can retire her to the garage and keep her as just as a fair weather, pleasure-only vehicle.  Hey, Papa FC&G shows a 1994 car in area car shows, so a 1998 isn't that far off!

Our culture expects consumers to get a new car every two to five years, which may be good for the auto industry but is bad for your pocketbook and your sustainable lifestyle.  A couple of the benefits of keeping your car way past the trade-in expectation are:

No car payments for years:  To be honest, I wrote a check for my car, so I've never had car payments.  God willing and knock wood, my plan is to never go into long-term debt for anything smaller than a house.  But even if you take five years to pay off a new car, keeping it for 15 would mean a whole decade without payments.  If you put even half of that money into a savings account, think of how much you would have.  For example, let's say I typically budget $400 a month for a car payment.  If I spend a decade without making that payment and save half of it each month, I would amass $24,000 before interest.  That's a good way toward another new car, a room addition on your house, or a year's tuition at a decent college.

Safety from knowing your vehicle:  My car and I have been together so long that I know if something is wrong just by how the engine sounds.  I can tell how fast I'm going from the vibration of the seat (although I do check the speedometer).  I know exactly how big of a parking space I can fit into and still comfortably open the doors, and I know how much room to allow for stopping on dry pavement.  This all translates into better driving.

So, how can you make your car last for a decade and a half?  My method won't work for everyone, but here's what has made my car into my lifelong companion:

I drive very little:  OK, this tip will not work for those of you in certain geographic situations, but I have always lived my life around avoiding driving.  It isn't that I am purposely being miserly; it is just that driving bores me to tears.  I've never been one of those people who can't wait to slide behind the wheel; even as a teenager, I thought cars were transportation, not entertainment.  Therefore, when I chose jobs as a single woman, I would only consider jobs located within about 20 minutes of where I wanted to live.  If a job would require a 30 minute commute, I would either turn down the job or consider moving.  I just don't want to spend my life in a car, no matter how cute it is.  In fact, one of the top motivations for starting my own business and working from home was that I could go days without getting into a car, except maybe for a brief shopping or gym errand.

I drive so little that, years ago when I did a calculation of how many years it would take me to recoup the cost differential between a new traditional car and a new hybrid car in fuel savings, I came up with something like 20 years.  Things have certainly changed, with lower relative prices of hybrids and higher gas prices, but by keeping to a very moderate driving schedule, I can drive what I want with no guilt.

My Dad is a car guy:  As I mentioned, Papa FC&G is a car guy extraordinaire.  He shows a car, and he has always enjoyed detailing and working on cars.  He is the only man I know (but not the only one *he* knows!) who thinks Q-tips are a car detailing tool.  I once bought him a glorified dental mirror so he could check the undersides of engine parts for dirt and grime.  So trust me, he doesn't let me forget my routine maintenance, and he makes very good suggestions about mechanics to use if I have a problem.  Not everyone has a car-guy father, but I'll bet most of you have a friend who can give advice (if you don't care for such things yourself).  Also, it helps to keep that maintenance record that came in your original car manual filled out, and pay attention to such things as suggested maintenance at given mileages.  Dropping a couple or a few hundred bucks once in a while is a small price to pay to keep your car running well.

I protect my car:  This car has never sat out overnight (except for very occasional emergencies), but even before I had this car, I always tried to find a way to shelter my vehicle.  At first, I did have to leave my car out, but I tried to park in relatively sheltered locations overnight (I got very good at knowing which way storm fronts blew in over certain apartment complexes and which parking spots seemed to get less snow).  As soon as it was financially practical, I rented a carport, and later, a garage.

Even if you can't garage your car, I can tell you one way to protect your vehicle that everyone can do:  Set a rule that NO ONE eats in the car.  Yes, that means you, the car owner, too.  I hate the smell of fast food that lingers in a car, and I hate the chance of spills on upholstery and greasy fingerprints on the steering wheel, although I am always guilty of there being mascara and lipstick on my steering wheel from me touching my face while driving.  Growing up, it was a hard-and-fast rule in our house that if anyone needed to eat or drink anything, we stopped the car and got out for that to happen, either at a restaurant or a rest stop.  This is my biggest rule for my car today, and it has the added benefit of making us all a little more mindful about our eating.  If you have to stop to eat, you may as well make good choices about what you are consuming.  And maybe you don't really need to consume anything at all.

Do some detailing once in a while:  Papa FC&G is going to laugh at me for this, because I am not nearly as good as he is, but I will say that it is a good idea to get out once in a while to wash your car, vacuum the inside, and clean the various surfaces and windows.  You'll feel good about your car's condition, and it will keep the finish from being damaged by road salt and the like.  (Pro tip:  Never use a slick cleaner like some of the tire polishes to clean your gear shift, steering wheel, or foot pedals, because they could cause your hands or feet to slip off at an inopportune moment).

So there you have it.  When I took delivery of my car, I planned to replace her at 10 years or 60,000 miles, whichever came first.  Clearly, 10 years has come and gone, and we certainly won't hit 60,000 for some time yet.  I no longer want to replace her, although I wouldn't mind a cute little playmate for her one day.  My car has lasted 15 years with a shiny finish and a bounce in her step.  I hope she's around for 15 more.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Southwestern Cheese Soup

This weekend, I finally got around to making stock.  I had a couple of stock buckets in the freezer filled with chicken and beef bones, plus onion stalks from the summer.  I combined that with some garlic and a big sprig of fresh sage and cooked it down to ten quarts of stock.

But 10 quarts of stock was too much for my pressure canner (which holds 7 quart jars), so I had three quarts of stock left in the fridge.  We will be eating soup all week, and my first batch is a riff on my traditional cheese soup.  It combines a creamy base with leftover garden veggies, and it is pretty yummy.  Mr. FC&G is requesting another batch, so I may yet use up all that stock!

Southwestern Cheese Soup

1 to 1.5 quarts stock (I used the larger amount, but it would work fine with the lesser amount if you are buying stock.)
1 can evaporated milk
12 oz. mild cheddar cheese
1 pint canned corn
1 cup (more or less) diced tomatoes
2 small peppers, diced (I used small, golf-ball-sized, mild chiles.  You can bump up the heat with jalapenos if you like.)
1 diced onion (optional) or equivalent of diced leeks
1 t. thyme
1 T. dill
pre-cooked pasta (optional)

Combine stock, corn, onion, and peppers in a large pot and cook on medium until onions are tender.  (I omitted the onion because my stock is onion-y already.)  Add dried herbs.

Reduce heat and add evaporated milk and cheese.  Cook until cheese is melted.  Add diced tomatoes and cook until warm.

If you wish, add some warm, pre-cooked pasta to your bowl before filling it with soup.  This is a great substitute for crackers, and it will use up leftover pasta.

The Analysis

Fast:  This soup will come together in about 30 munites

Cheap:  For me, the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and dried herbs all came from the garden.  The stock, obviously, was made from trimmings that would have gone to waste anyway.  Therefore, all I paid for was the evaporated milk and the cheese (and the pasta add-in), which means the whole batch was under $5 and makes about 6-8 servings.

Good:  Mr. FC&G has requested more, so I'll take that as a vote of confidence.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Crochet Table Cloth

Remember how I was telling you about crafting out of anxiety?  Well, enough anxiety and enough time on your hands will certainly give you a good, handcrafted product that will last a lifetime.  To wit:  my crocheted table cloth for the kitchen.

A few years back, Mr. FC&G was on one of his extended projects out of town during the winter.  I hate these projects, although they are essential if we are planning to eat and pay our bills.  But not only do I wind up missing Mr. FC&G terribly while he is gone (in this case, 12 days away and 2 days at home, repeated for weeks), but the days we have together are a flurry not of togetherness but of trying to prepare him for the next march through 12 hour days.  He would come home and crash while I would do laundry, try to fix a few meals he really liked, and package homemade snacks and leftovers he could put in a hotel room fridge so that he didn't have to eat every meal out and possibly could get some rest.  In the meantime, he would be gone and I would work and keep up the house and then spend my evenings crafting to keep my hands busy.  The result, this particular time out, was a new table cloth for the round table in the kitchen.

The beauty of this project was that I didn't try to do any specific pattern.  Instead, I got a pretty patterned yarn and simply crocheted in the round until I had the size I wanted.  If you don't know how to crochet in the round, there are some good explanations out there.  The basic idea is to chain 4 stitches and join them.  Then, in the first go-round, you put two new stitches in every existing stitch in the chain.  Put in a stitch marker to know where you started.  Then, in the second go round, you put one stitch in one previous stitch and two stitches in the next previous stitch.  In the next round, it is 2:1 (two single stitches, then one double), then 3:1, and so on.  Pretty soon, you find yourself doing things like 80 single stitches, then a double, then 80 more singles, and so on.  This is, however, generally the right amount of increase per round to keep things from buckling up, although you can adjust if you sense things are getting wacky on you.

The project ate up a lot of time, and it ate up a lot of cotton yarn, too.  I really lost count of how many balls of yarn it took.  You'll see in the analysis that this isn't a winner on speed or cost.  But I have a thick, handmade tablecloth that protects my table from hot pans and will probably last my entire life.  And it was fun to make, which counted for a lot on a long, lonely winter.

The Analysis

Fast:  I calculated that this took about 200 hours of crocheting, which is roughly 400 times the amount of time it would have taken me to drive to the grocery store and buy a $15 round tablecloth.

Cheap:  As I say, I lost count, but it took many balls of yarn to finish.  I did fold the cost into the weekly grocery budget (because our grocery store also sells the kitchen cotton yarn), but let's say it cost at least 10 times as much as that standard off-the-rack table cloth.

Good:  But I'd do it again!  I might very well, as a matter of fact.  It was relaxing to do, and it is by far my happiest-looking and sturdiest table cloth.  Sometimes, you just do a project to prove that you can do it yourself.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: September

Goodness!  October is almost done, and I'm finally getting around to telling you how the garden did in September.

Overall, the drought really got us this year.  While the garden did better than last year, the drought was felt in the size and weight of the crops we brought in.  September's tally shows that, with a total harvest of 22.25 pounds of produce, mostly tomatoes, but also carrots, peppers, greens, and a few leeks.  Everything was small:  the tomatoes were small, the peppers were light, the leeks thus far are light.

Light, and also late.  What you see above is a late September picture of a paprika alma pepper, which is usually in full production by July or August.  This year, I finally started getting some paprika peppers to harvest in September, and they are still going in October (although I'm sure the upcoming freeze will take the plants, even with the cover I have over them).  Leeks are also late; I planted seeds in March, and I finally started to harvest some little ones in late September.

What isn't included in the tally below is the herbs.  I will do a separate accounting for herbs very soon, because they are difficult to account for in a single month.  Also, I will do a breakdown of tomato production by type; the highlight of this month was not just tomatoes every day on salads, but also the 9 pounds of green tomatoes that are ripening in the sunroom.  As I write, we are still eating red garden tomatoes almost every day.

Also a bonus was no expenditure in September, so everything harvested appears as profit.  And, as I try to remind myself, I'm highly unlikely to buy 22 pounds of produce if I have to do so at the grocery in a given month, so this all helps our overall health.

2012 Tally to Date
154.2165 lbs. total harvested
$65.75 value of harvest for September
$427.51 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$230.86 profit to date
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Friday, October 19, 2012

Raised Bed with Landscaping Bricks

I've been very excited this year by the increased interest I see in growing in raised beds, no doubt sparked by the trend toward "square foot gardening."  I've loved watching my friends on Facebook put together their wooden box beds in the spring, fill them with soil and plants, and share their joy when they harvest their first produce.

We also grow in raised beds, but we have made ours out of the curved landscaping bricks you get at the hardware store.  I feel like this has a few advantages.  First, there is no worry about whether you've gotten lumber that has been treated with arsenic or other chemicals, which is not something you want around your plants.  Second, the stone will last much longer.

Third, however, is that I think making the bed more aesthetically pleasing is key to not rousing the displeasure of that one grouchy neighbor who knows that your HOA, neighborhood, or township has some arcane regulation on the book forbidding visible food crops or something.  My theory is, if you make it look like a flower bed, it is no one's business if you are eating the "flowers."

What you see above is the first raised bed we ever built, sitting in our back yard.  It is probably six to eight years old, and it is still doing fine.  You can see the beginnings of some fall carrots growing in the foreground, and the summer leek crop still in the back of the bed.  We have a few extra bricks stacked on the side for use when we build a cold frame over it for the winter.

The nice thing about this construction is the accessibility.  The bed is roughly 12 feet long, but only 4.5 feet wide by outside measurement.  This means that from any point in the bed, I can reach a middle section by sitting on the side and reaching comfortably in.  There is no bending or stretching.  I make this width requirement a given for any of our raised beds, so there are no huge eight foot circles on our property, for instance.

Although this seems like a spring project, there is no reason you can't spend a nice fall day constructing a bed for your use next spring as long as your hardware store is still selling bricks.  Basically, you simply pace off the area of lawn you will devote to the bed, and lay down an expanse of old fencing or hardware cloth.  This will keep the critters from digging up from under the bed and eating the roots of your plants.

Then, start laying rows of bricks down over the hardware cloth in a kidney shape (which will happen naturally with the bricks.  You will have to play a bit while you build to be sure you are getting a pleasant shape and that you are covering the hardware cloth completely.  Feel free to trim the hardware cloth as needed.  Since we just used scraps of old fence on this bed, it was easy to be sure nothing was poking out.

The bricks layer just as standard square bricks do, with each subsequent layer covering the joint between bricks in the layer below.  You may find that you have to split a brick or two to get everything to work, but that's where someone like Mr. FC&G comes in.

I like my raised beds three rows high, which makes the bed a couple of feet high once the inevitable settling happens.  You can make it deeper if you like, but I wouldn't go much above four or five rows, because you will start losing interior space as each new row is just slightly narrower than the one below.

Landscaping bricks are usually available for between $1 and $2 each, so this raised bed took about 90 bricks for a total of about $150 in materials for a bed that will last many, many years.

Your last step is filling it with soil.  Don't feel like you have to buy bagged soil at the hardware store.  We lucked into finding a construction company that had removed soil from a site and wanted to get rid of it, but landscaping companies will also sell you a truckload if you don't have enough finished compost to fill your bed.  (I actually did fill another raised bed with sifted compost one year, which took about a week's worth of evenings since I could only stand to do an hour or two at a time.)

The Analysis
Fast:  Budget an afternoon to do this project, between hauling the bricks from the store and laying them out.  It isn't hard, but you will definitely get your workout for the day!

Cheap:  I find the cost to be pretty economically viable, especially given the bed's longevity.

Good:  No matter how you do it, raised bed gardening is a great technique!

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

DIY Clothes Pin Bag

I have a habit of nervously crafting to reduce anxiety.  Over the years, I have embroidered stacks of pillowcases before leaving for work (back in the day that I worked in university administration full time), crocheted afghans and pieced quilts while Mr. FC&G was out of town on business, and made drawers full of fleece socks and yoga socks.  Around here, idle hands are anxiety's workshop.

This all started the year I graduated college and was looking for a job.  I made straight cotton skirts by the closet-ful while waiting for the phone to ring.  One of my favorites was probably not office-appropriate, but it was just right for casual wear for a 20-something:  white with pretty country-pink flowers all over it.  It had a Laura Ashley quality I just loved, and I wore that thing to death.

Fast forward to ten years ago, when I needed a clothes pin bag.  I hated the idea of buying one of those twee little commercial versions that cost $25 for something that looked like a dress on a hanger.  I just wanted a pretty bag, for heaven's sake!  So, I grabbed that old skirt, which was no longer wearable, and I remade it into a clothes pin bag for free!  This is one of my favorite projects, and you can see the results above (plus, you can see Mr. FC&G in the background in a sort of poor man's Where's Waldo?).

Because I did this project a decade ago, I do not have step-by-step pictures for you, but I think you can figure it out from written instructions.  The beauty of this is that it requires only two seams, and no hemming if you do it right.

DIY Clothespin Bag

1 old straight (pencil or mini) skirt (it can have darts over the tummy area, but don't use anything gathered)
1 sturdy hanger

1.  Cut the entire front panel off the skirt by cutting straight up the front near the side seams.  Leave the hem and the waistband in place.  Save the back -- you can get a couple of quilt squares out of the thing, too.

2.  With right sides together, fold the hem up to near the waist band, leaving a waist-band-width of plain fabric as a single layer.  Basically, you are making an envelope.  The body of your envelope is the skirt panel folded up with hem touching a single layer of fabric; you are left with a waist band and a waist-band-width swath of fabric as your envelope flap.

3.  Sew the side seams up the envelope body panel.  Don't forget to lock in your stitches at the top of the envelope where the skirt hem is.  Your hem will be giving your bag some stability.

4.  Turn the bag (or envelope) so the outside is out.  Now, with the inside of the flap facing you, place a sturdy coat hanger inside, fold the waist band over the gap that you left, and sew a channel horizontally across to hold the coat hanger in place.

5.  Bingo!  Nearly-instant clothes pin bag out of your favorite old skirt!

The Analysis

Fast:  I think this whole project took 45 minutes, but, if I remember correctly, part of that was finding a hanger.

Cheap:  Free?  Yep.

Good:  That silly bag makes me smile every time I wear it.  Not too shabby for an extra ten year's of "wear" out of one of my favorite skirts.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Fast, Cheap, and Good is Now on Kindle!

I'm super-excited to tell you that Fast, Cheap, and Good is now available for the Amazon Kindle and related apps.  You can see the Amazon listing here.

Through this program, readers who prefer to receive the blog on their Kindle, much as you might a magazine, will be able to subscribe for $0.99 per month.  The content is updated throughout the day, so you don't have to wait for a monthly digest, but you will have the convenience of having posts available on your Kindle.  I think this is a neat feature for a blog like this, because we feature so many recipes and DIY projects that may lend themselves more to being stored in the library format of a Kindle than to requiring you to visit the website or maintain a bookmark or printout of your favorite.

Of course, the content will remain free right here on the website, so the blog will continue to be fast, free, and good.  But if you prefer the Kindle reader or just want to help support journalism and commentary into sustainable living, I think this is a pretty affordable option.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

One-Off Wednesdays

According to a study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, in 2005 married women with no children did an average of 17 hours of housework each week.  Housework here is defined as chores like "washing dishes, laundry, vacuuming floors, and dusting," otherwise described as work "people generally do not enjoy doing."  I'd quibble with that; I really love to do those chores; they give me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment I don't get from anything else.

However, with a full time job (and with other important chores, like gardening, not included in this list because they are considered to be more pleasant by the researchers), it is a struggle to get my 17 hours to do my housework.  And, honestly, even though I love the routine stuff, I will admit that it does have a tendency to never be done -- doing laundry today doesn't mean there won't be more laundry tomorrow.

That's why my favorite day is "One-Off Wednesdays."  For the rest of the week, I try to follow a schedule of laundry, fluffing and folding, baking, cleaning bathrooms, changing sheets, and running the vacuum, but on Wednesday I get to pick a periodic chore that rarely gets the attention it deserves, and really dive in.

Today, the chore was cleaning the bedroom floor with diluted oil soap.  (You can see my spray bottle there; I just buy the concentrated Murphy's Oil Soap in bulk, then dilute it and keep a bottle handy.  It helps reduce the temptation to buy pre-mixed cleaners.)  After vacuuming the rug, I got down with a rag and my soap, and I really did a good job of cleaning the hardwood, including the corners, the woodwork, and the furniture legs.  My floor looks so shiny, and the bedroom smells amazingly clean!

Other chores for One-Off Wednesday?

  • Polish the brass on the fireplace and clean the ashes out into the ash bucket (the ashes will go by cups-full into the compost bucket).
  • Clean all the doorknobs.
  • Use glass cleaner on everything glass in the house -- mirrors, glass table tops, glass TV screens.
  • Beat the throw rugs with my rug beater; in the winter, snow wash them first.
  • Dust the chandeliers and the corners where the walls meet the ceilings.
You get the idea.  These are the fiddly little things you wish you had time to do more of, and Wednesday is my day to indulge.

What is your best housework tip?

The Analysis

Fast:  By devoting one cleaning session a week to these kinds of chores, I really get them done faster than if I waited until I had a whole day to clean the entire bedroom, for example.

Cheap:  Arguably, this is cheaper because I tend to play a game with myself on Wednesday, seeing how much I can clean with a certain amount of cleaner or before my rag gets too dirty to use.  When I used to have a part-time job outside the home that started in the morning, I would do my dusting this way before I left -- I got an incredible amount of the house dusted before my cloth was too nasty to pick up more dirt!

Good:  Obviously, One-Off Wednesdays are my favorite chore day!

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Scratch Cooking Part II: The Three Main Meals

Earlier this week, I talked about how cooking from scratch is the key to saving money on groceries.  But for most people, this conjures up visions of hours spent slaving in the kitchen putting together meals more suited to Downton Abbey in 1912 than to Dayton, Ohio, in 2012.

Let me start with a confession:  for my entire life, I've wanted to be a housewife.  I wanted that when I was a little girl, I assumed it was my right in life in college, I proudly proclaimed myself a homemaker while single (much to the confusion of strangers), and I am pleased to be a housewife now.  However, the role of housewife in the modern era comes right alongside a full-time job and all the other commitments of life, so time in the kitchen is precious indeed.

Therefore, I have distilled my main meal cooking down to three main options, which comprise 80 percent of the dinners I cook.  With variations, we don't get bored, and I am able to get by on a limited grocery list and garden harvest that serves our needs.  The main meal categories are:

"Sunday Dinner:"  This is some variant of a roast, a bunch of potatoes and onions, and maybe some carrots or a fresh salad.  Sometimes it is a beef roast, sometimes a whole chicken.  It sounds like a lot; people sometimes comment that it seems like I'm making Thanksgiving dinner.  But really, I'm just making a good, old fashioned, country meal that requires very little tending.  A beef roast will cook happily in the Crock Pot all day, and a chicken will make the house smell wonderful for the two or three hours it is in the oven.  Generally, I make these meals on a Sunday, when I can putter around the house or sit and read a book while the cooking goes on without much attention from me.  Then, I'm assured that Mr. FC&G has leftover meat for the coming week.

Soup:  If you are going to cook roasts and birds, you are going to wind up with bones and trimmings.  This means stock around here.  Every couple of months, I can a batch of homemade stock (which, again, is something that simmers on the stove for hours while you go about your business).  This serves as a base for a quick meal of soup, whether that be a cheesy potato soup, a chowder, or a simple broth with onions and greens that will be a great vehicle for homemade or boxed pasta.  I make very few soups that require more than 30 minutes of prep and cooking, so this is a great weeknight option.

Pasta and Something:  If Mr. FC&G loves meat, I love pasta.  So, one of my regular meals for us is pasta and something.  Think zucchini orzo, or mac-n-cheese, or rigatoni with garden tomatoes and fresh basil.  Basically, almost anything on hand can be tossed with pasta, with perhaps a sauce of choice and some cheese.  This is a very quick dinner that still usually includes lots of veggies for us.

What about the other 20 percent?  This part of our dinner rotation is reserved for the one-off meals that we like, such as fried cod on a bed of garden veggies, baked salmon, student ragout, or some new recipe that I've decided to try to see if it deserves a place in the regular rotation.  It also includes our occasional meals out, which tend to happen once a week due to either family get-togethers or business events, or just because we want a treat.  We can budget that in, because the rest of the week we have spent so little and eaten so well.
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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In Praise of Scratch Cooking

Once again, living on a food-stamp-sized budget is in the news, as bloggers attempt to restrict themselves to spending only the amount they would theoretically receive in SNAP benefits on food, and seeing what happens.  I've tried this experiment once before, and not much has changed in the interim.

Except, I have been thinking about why Mr. FC&G and I can easily bring our grocery bill in at a fairly low level, and I've come to the conclusion that most of it comes down to cooking from scratch.

You can see my grocery totals for September at the right (written, of course, on my Key West Calendar, so I'm always aware of my motivation for being a cheapskate!).  September's grocery bill came in at about $353, a good $14 under the maximum SNAP budget of $367 for a family of two, but certainly above the $4 per person per day that some bloggers use.  That lower budget would have allotted us $240 for the month.  However, note that September included a number of expenditures that aren't covered by SNAP benefits, most notably the last grocery trip of the month which included new bed pillows, a new dish draining rack, and make-up and hair products.

I really think our ability to eat on far less than $100 per week is attributable to scratch cooking.  I rarely do anything but; I can't imagine buying primarily prepared foods, and I generally buy ingredients, not meals.  Yes, my freezer does have a few boxes of frozen foods for "emergency" nights, but generally my meals consist of pasta dishes with fresh garden herbs and veggies, homemade soup made with my own canned stock, and, on the weekends, beef roasts or whole chickens slow cooked with garden potatoes and onions.  I buy pasta, but I also make a lot of my own noodles and dumplings, and the fresh-baked bread disappears around here almost as fast as I can make it.

In fact, I bemoan how high our grocery bill is, because I know that what I am buying is at least in part junk.  That grocery total is driven up by luxuries like Pepsi for our daily pop indulgence and cookies to address the sweet tooth.  Certainly, I'm attempting to do more baking of our sweets, which helped September considerably, but my love of desserts will always be our downfall (and the reason I'm glad I dance four nights a week and garden the rest of the time!).

My lesson for controlling the grocery budget?  Sadly, it isn't clipping coupons or looking for sales.  Instead, it is finding that universe of meals you can make from real ingredients, not from boxes of prepared foods, then making those recipes every night without fail.  Make a bunch -- I always make 4-6 servings at minimum, even for two of us, because that will cover another lunch and dinner.  Make ahead and freeze if you can.  Make recipes that do double duty -- that chicken that feeds Mr. FC&G nearly all week will turn into wonderful stock when we are down to the bones.  But, if you really want to save on groceries, I see no better solution than to get into the kitchen and cook.
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Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Week in the Sustainable Life

Sometimes, I get to the end of the week and realize that I haven't done a lot of new projects to share with you.  Rather, I've repeated a lot of old projects, and they've gotten me through a busy time.

Spring and fall are most like this.  The garden is either not yet producing or just finishing up, so there's little to talk about there, and crochet/knit/sewing season is not really upon us.  This week, things were really busy around here work-wise, and that meant some repeats of old sustainability projects to keep things on track:

  • We are enjoying the very last salads from the garden, as you can see at the right.  The lettuce is producing like crazy, but the tomatoes are finished except for the box of breakers I harvested this week.  They will ripen, but they will really best work in sauces, not in salads.
  • I'm continuing on with my Tunisian crochet.  In spite of what I said earlier in the week, the ragged left edge bothered me, so I tore out some of my piece and crocheted it back.  Now, I need to go back to that excellent tutorial and learn to bind off.
  • Carrot Creations, my Very Part-Time Job, is going great guns.  I love that I know whenever a chilly spell settles over the country, because my yoga socks start selling more rapidly.  Most of my crocheting time is spent on that, which gives me something to do while Mr. FC&G and I get caught up on Downton Abbey.
  • I quit the second shift job, which means I'm officially down to a full-time job and Carrot Creations.  This means less excuse to bike to work, but it also means less time in the car once the weather gets nasty.  Sorry, but I'm a fair-weather bike commuter; I don't bike when it is raining, snowing. or below 60 degrees.  
  • Mr. FC&G has been crazy-busy, so he has appreciated having a supply of homemade frappuccinos in the fridge as his caffeinated drink.
  • However, I must admit that I'm personally having trouble with the season switch.  My business has been going great guns, which, as Mr. FC&G notes, is a "high quality problem," but it takes away from the time to really cook well.  I need to think of some good meals to make that don't rely so heavily on lots of prep time or goods from the garden.  Last week, I bought a $17 grass-fed chuck roast at the farmer's market, which is expensive, but it will certainly feed Mr. FC&G for several days and throw off a nice bone for stock, too.  I plan to make it on a day I have a few hours to put it in the oven with potatoes and onions and enjoy the stove heat as well as the smell.
  • Finally, it is not quite time to Freeze Yer Buns, but we have had the AC off the majority of the time for the past month, and the heat will not be turned on until we can't stand it.  We're having a mild fall, which I hope continues.  And, one of the best things about quitting the second shift job is that I will be home all day (in my home office), which means I can babysit a fire in the cookstove to heat the house.  I just never feel comfortable starting one and then leaving for the afternoon, so now I can use that as our primary source of heat on chilly-but-not-cold days.

So what are you doing this fall?  And what should I make for dinner that doesn't depend on tomatoes and cucumbers?  Weigh in below!
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