Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Sock Loom: No Thanks

The human foot is a difficult thing.  As the appendage furthest away from the heart, it tends to lose heat fast and be difficult to keep warm.  To add to the insult, it is oddly-shaped, with that troublesome heel sticking out there.  Anything that fits comfortably over the heel may be too big for the ankle, and vice versa.  So the simple sock is something of a triumph of fiber engineering.

As a good devotee of sustainable living, I wanted to start making my own socks for Mr. FC&G and I.  True, I have made our fleece socks for a few years, but I wanted to knit some in fine sock yarn without the challenge of using multiple double-pointed needles.  So, I was very excited to discover the sock loom.

The sock loom is designed to allow you to knit socks without understanding actual knitting.  As you can see above, it is a simple wooden frame with a number of fixed pegs, each corresponding to a stitch.  The small crosspiece can be adjusted to make a smaller or larger sock, and you do a bit of simple math based on your food circumference to decide how many pegs you need to use and thus adjust the loom.

The idea is a good one.  Theoretically, you wind the yarn around each peg and then use a pointed tool to knit your stitches off, winding more yarn on for each round.  You should be able to make any size sock from baby to adult male, and the only counting you need to do is the number of rows completed for each part of the sock:  foot, heel, and ankle.  The loom comes with a DVD that explains how to increase and decrease number of stitches to make the little pocket your heel goes in, and how to use the same technique to tailor the toe.

However, I found this device extremely frustrating for the following reasons:

  • The loom should be able to be used to make any size sock, but my math indicates that I would not be able to make one big enough for Mr. FC&G, who, I hasten to add, has large feet but not freakishly large ones.  
  • The yarn is difficult to knit off the pegs even with the special tool.  And heaven forbid you drop a stitch, because you have the yarn on there with such tension that the dropped stitch immediately creates a run that goes to the bottom of your work.
  • See those corners?  They are really painful to hold against your body.  This may not be a problem for those that sit with the loom on a table as the DVD shows (although I couldn't really get it to work like that), but it is murder for those of us who like to sit on the couch with our knitting in our lap, watching TV.

So, it is back to square one for me with knitting socks.  Maybe I'll have to bite the bullet and get out the double-pointed needles after all.

The Analysis

Fast:  I never could manage to complete a sock, so I have no idea if this is faster than traditional knitting.  Certainly, it is more frustrating.

Cheap:  If I remember correctly, this was about $25, which I intended as a reasonable sunk cost for a lifetime of quickly knitting our socks.  However, I think it is far too expensive for what it does.

Good:  The sock loom didn't work all that well for me, and worst of all, it eliminated that nice meditative feeling I get when I am handcrafting goods for my family.  I have tried this multiple times with different yarns, different tensions, and a number of body positions, and I still always felt cramped and miserable.  Regretfully, I have to recommend taking a pass on the sock loom.
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Friday, February 24, 2012

Prepping 101: Weekend Challenge

Have you been watching Doomsday Preppers?  This reality show profiles a few preppers each week, each preparing for a different type of breakdown that could leave them temporarily or permanently on their own, such as EMPs, catastrophic earthquakes, and economic collapse (which seems to be a favorite among those profiled -- hmm, wonder why?).  Our very own Survival Mom was on the first episode, although I understand that the show took a few editing liberties with her and others.

Regardless of the factuality of the show, the format is fun to play with:  the show tours a prepper home or other prepared area (one guy planned to be mobile with just his bug-out bag, while another was an OTR trucker with a truck cab filled with preps), then has a panel of experts analyze how well the preps would stand up against the threat the prepper had posed.  Finally, there is an update in which the prepper explains any changes made or not made, and the show gives its estimate of the likelihood of the event.

Inspired by this, I challenge all my readers to a game of Sustainable Preppers.  This is a chance for you to engage your household in a discussion of how prepared you are for different events.  Here are your challenges for the weekend:

Challenge 1:  Catastrophic Weather
The National Weather Service says that your area is anticipating a catastrophic weather event:  a hurricane, a tornado, an ice storm, etc.  (You can certainly pick an earthquake or volcano eruption if that is reasonable for your area and you want to start a little bigger.)  You are at home with the "preps" (or pantry supplies) you have on hand.

  • Do you stay, or do you bug out?  Is there enough gas in your car if you decide to go?  Where would you go?  Where would your family meet if communication was down and you got separated?
  • How long would this event last?  Do you have enough medication, first aid, and other essentials to survive the first few days?
  • What would you need from the grocery?  If you can't make it through the period without a grocery run, what is so urgent for you to buy?  If you could not buy those items again for a long time, how would you grow/produce/make them yourself?  
  • Are there any last minute household chores that have to be done before the storm hit?  Would you haul in extra firewood, wash a load of jeans and sweatshirts, or pressure can some of your frozen meat?  Why?  Do you have the supplies on hand to do this?
  • How would you ensure you have adequate water?

Challenge 2:  Economic Difficulties
There is an economic difficulty of your choosing.  You might pick a "bank holiday" intended to stabilize an erratic economy, a job loss/cut-back in your own house, or a full-scale hyperinflation.  Products are still available, but you will never make enough money to afford everything you currently buy.

  • What do you absolutely have to buy?  Why?  In what order do you buy it?  Does your list change with the situation?  (That is, would you make different choices if you had a reduction in your work hours than you would if you thought the U.S. economy was headed for hyperinflation?)
  • What can you make/grow/trade for?  Why are you not doing that now?  What would you have to do to move that direction?  What do you dread the thought of doing for yourself?
  • Would you preserve any savings, or would you spend yourself to zero?  Why do you make this decision?
As I have always stated, I do not take an alarmist view to prepping.  Preparing for anything simply gives you options in all sorts of situations that you may not otherwise have had, and it is better to think things through when calm than when the SHTF (prepper lingo for when the --ahem-- stuff hits the fan).

What is one thing you need to do to feel better prepared, and how are you going to address this need?  Leave us your ideas in the comments section!

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gardening Season Has Begun!

It's official:  gardening season has begun!

I usually start my peppers on Groundhog Day, and I was a few days late this year in spite of knowing that we are now officially in a warmer growing zone.  Therefore, I have been anxiously watching for my little darlings to appear from their beds of potting mix in my repurposed cookie containers.  (These plastic containers have their own clear lids, so they are just perfect for becoming mini-greenhouses.  They also contained some of my favorite store-bought cookies, but that played no role in my purchase decision.....)

I typically start about five different kinds of peppers, varying my selection by the year.  This year's crop includes:

California Wonder (Burpee):  Planted 2/5; Emerged 2/19

Key Largo (Seeds of Change):  Planted 2/5; Emerged 2/19

Paprika (From my own stock):  Planted 2/5; Have not yet emerged

Banana (From my own stock):  Planted 2/8; Have not yet emerged

Jalapeno (From my own stock):  Planted 2/8; Emerged 2/19

As you can see, I have more of my own peppers from seeds I have been saving.  The Paprika peppers are several generations old by now, and they always take a really long time to sprout, so I'm not yet worried.  The Jalapeno and Banana peppers are in their first year of my seed-saving efforts, but I am pleased that the Jalapeno have emerged so much more quickly than they usually do for me when I purchase the seed.  They seem eager to prove they belong in my garden.

As you might suspect, I don't tend to do much to encourage germination, and peppers regularly take me 10-14 days to see their little green backs rounding out of the soil.  I do put my mini-greenhouses in a warm spot in the house, and I even take them down to sit on the dryer while it is running so their feet get warm, but I don't do anything dramatic like soaking them first or filing off part of the seed covering.  I figure letting them sprout their own way is part of my test to see if they will be hearty.  So far, the approach hasn't failed me.  I just hope these little guys hurry up and get a set of real leaves on them so I can transplant them and free the mini-greenhouses for planting tomatoes.  The time for that will be here before you know it.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cheesy Carrot Soup

I consider the start of spring to be March 1.  No, the weather usually isn't reliably warm, and I certainly won't be bringing in baskets of produce, but I know the worst is over at that point.  This winter has not even been particularly harsh, but we still are craving reminders of spring.

Part of that is the desire for fresh veggies, so this weekend I adapted my favorite Cheesy Potato Soup recipe to be Cheesy Carrot Soup.  Although this isn't as thick as potato soup, I love the crunch of the onions and carrots.  I really love the way it looks: the dill that I dried this summer unfolds into these beautiful tiny green leaves; store-bought dill won't do that.  And the pasture butter and carrots really give it a beautiful golden tone.

Cheesy Carrot Soup

2 T butter (Pasture butter if you can find it)
1 c diced onions (From the root cellar if you have thought ahead; add more if you like onions)
1 pint chopped carrots (From the freezer if you have them from summer; you can add more here too)
3 c stock (I made about 2 gallons of beef/chicken stock this weekend, so it was nice and fresh)
1 c heavy cream or half and half (Organic, again)
2 c shredded cheddar cheese (Sharp is nice in this)
1 T dill weed (Dried from the summer makes it free.)
A few grinds of salt and pepper

In a medium stock or stew pot, saute onions in the butter until they are translucent. Add stock and carrots and cook until carrots are soft.
Add cream, spices, and cheese. Cook until cheese is melted. If you are using dill you dried yourself, you will see it "bloom" open, adding a lovely green speckle against the beautiful yellow of the soup.
Serve with homemade bread and jam.  Makes 4 servings.

The Analysis

Fast:  I have this base recipe down to a science, so I can go from cutting board to table in less than 45 minutes.  It is important to keep a good reserve of stock in the freezer or pantry in case the desire for this soup strikes.

Cheap:  I bought butter, cream, cheese, and onions.  Therefore, total cost for the recipe was probably in the $5-7 range, which is not bad for 4 servings.  If you have to buy the stock, you will pay more.  Carrot and dill costs will add in too.

Good:  This is just what we needed this weekend:  a good, veggie-filled, warm soup to reignite our enthusiasm for things.  I can't wait until summer again when every meal is filled with veggies fresh from the garden!
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Monday, February 13, 2012

Prepping 101: Garden Crop Selection for Storage

Welcome back to our series on prepping basics!

For many of us, it is time to place our garden seed orders and get our seedlings started.  That makes February a great time to think about the choices we make regarding our garden plants and the ability we have to make those veggies last throughout the year. 

Most of us make our decisions on what to plant based on what we like to eat and what we can reasonably grow on our property and in our microclimate.  These are important concerns.  But, for those of you starting your prepping adventure, I encourage you to think about how you will preserve those veggies for winter use and whether you are making choices that could get you through an emergency of short, medium, or even extended term.

Some of the choices I make:

Veggies that Extend the Season:  Lettuces, chard, and other leafy greens are natural season extenders, growing well in even frosty conditions either under row covers, in a pop-up greenhouse, or in a planter in your sunniest window.  While these products don't keep well and aren't very high in calories, they will give you a much-needed burst of vitamins in your diet if you are cut off from grocery stores and living on your pantry supplies.  Radishes and sprouts will do the same and have the advantage of maturing quickly.

Buy:  High-nutrient greens like Swiss chard, spinach, mustard, and other specialty greens.   Try to get some heat-tolerant and some cold-tolerant varieties.  Also order your favorite radish and some sprouting seeds, like broccoli or onions.

Veggies/Fruits to Freeze:  I tend to think of the freezer as life support for my garden produce.  Obviously, any kind of grid collapse is going to drastically shorten the life of food in your freezer.  On the other hand, freezing is very easy and frozen food items can serve as pretty easy insurance against wildly fluctuating food prices such as those that might be found in an economic upheaval.

Because I have a small freezer, I use my freezer space for meat and for fruits and veggies that freeze better than they can or dry, like berries and shredded zucchini.  I also tend to freeze green beans and sliced carrots, even though these will can well.

Buy:  Berry plants and bushes, and summer squash seeds.

Veggies/Fruits to Water Bath Can:  The majority of my food preservation each season is done with a water bath canner, which is very easy to learn to use and is very scalable; you can put up a single pint jar or a whole canner full of quarts with relative ease.  Water bath canners are intended to preserve high-acid products, so I use mine to put up jams, preserves, pickles, and tomatoes.

Buy:  Tomatoes for various uses, including paste tomatoes (gives sauces a thickness and richness) and slicers (make great juice in addition to being fabulous raw).  Order cucumbers and zucchini for pickles and relishes.  Also put in a few berry plants and bushes. 

Veggies to Pressure Can:  Pressure canning is for low-acid fruits and vegetables, and I won't lie:  it is more of a production than water-bath canning.  Nonetheless, it is the only way to make some foods into a shelf-stable product.  In addition to canning stock and meats, pressure canning is the natural way to preserve some relatively high-energy veggies like corn and beans.

Buy:  Corn if you have space for more than four rows (for pollination purposes).  Also, order the highest-yield beans you can find. 

Veggies/Herbs to Dry:  Drying is one of the oldest forms of food preservation, and, in a pinch, you can make a solar dryer if you find yourself off the grid.  I dry tomatoes and some berries, plus a wide variety of culinary and medicinal herbs.  If you can grow nothing else, I highly recommend that you find room for some herb plants and dry your extra for winter; herbs carry a number of healthy phytochemicals that we are only beginning to understand, and the extra pop of flavor could make a diet of pantry supplies much more palatable.

Buy:  Seeds or plants of herbs that dry well, including basils, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, and rosemary.  Many of these will also weather the winter in a pot, so you may not have to dry very much to guarantee your supply.  Dried tomatoes are also shelf-stable if stored in oil, or they keep dry if you tuck them in your freezer.

Veggies to Cellar:  Finally, some of the foods that we most associate with winter have this connotation because they store well without much preservation effort.  Winter squash, potatoes, onions, and carrots all will keep for several months in a cool spot in your house.  These crops are the backbone of your prepping, because they will provide enough calories, mass, and satisfying mouth-feel to round out a meal or extend more expensive foods like meat, dairy, and grain.

Buy:  Seeds for carrots and winter squash; starts for potatoes (seed potatoes) and onions.  Grow as much as you have room for.

These are my decisions based on our lot size, growing zone, microclimate, and personal tastes.  What are you growing in your 2012 prepping garden?
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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Butternut Squash Bread

I love zucchini bread.  I consider it a very sustainable product, because it uses a very cheap-to-grow vegetable to stretch your more expensive baking ingredients.  Squash is a natural that way.  It has a body to it that allows you to put it in breads and breadlike products (like pizza crust), and it seems to really extend the amount of finished product you wind up with.  Adding squash also adds a bit of extra nutrition and lightness to something that might otherwise be a little heavy and fattening.

Since I love zucchini bread so much, I decided to try making it with butternut squash, and I'm glad I did!  The finished product has a very slight pumpkin flavor to it, and it tastes like a very mild coffee cake.  It is also very prepping-friendly, in keeping with our February theme. 

Unlike zucchini, butternut squash can simply be cellared in a cool spot to keep throughout the winter, so the only ingredients in this recipe that are not shelf stable are the eggs, and even they would keep for a decent amount of time in a cool enough spot. (And powdered eggs would do in a pinch; the richness of the squash should help compensate texture-wise.)  Therefore, this would be one of the recipes that would still work even if you were off the power grid for a long time.  I can just imagine baking a loaf of this in a woodstove or outdoor bread oven in a cast iron dutch oven; I may have to try that the next time I fire one or the other up!

Squash Bread
3 eggs (free-range and farm fresh, if you can)
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 t. vanilla
3 cups flour
1 T. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt.
1 medium butternut squash (or 2 medium zucchini in summer)

Cut butternut squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds.  Bake the butternut squash in a shallow pan filled with water on 350 until the squash is soft, about 30 minutes.  Remove the flesh from the skins and mash.  (In summer, grate zucchini until you have up to 2 cups of shredded squash -- this recipe is very forgiving about the amount of squash you have.)

In a large bowl, beat eggs.  Add sugar, oil, and vanilla and mix.  Add dry ingredients and squash and blend well. 

Pour into two greased loaf pans, one bundt pan, or one large lasagna pan (9x13).  Bake at 350 for one hour.  Cool in pans for 10 minutes and remove.

The Analysis
Fast:  Lots of baking time here, but not a lot of prep.  If you are making this in winter, allow a little extra time to bake the butternut squash first.  I like to do a big batch of squash and make this at the same time I'm doing butternut squash spaetzle.

Cheap:  Using squash as an extender makes this more pocket-friendly than a traditional sweet bread.  Spend your extra on farm-fresh eggs.

Good:  This is quite a treat at any time, and it is comforting to know at least one recipe would be able to make it through a grid-outage and subsequent food storage problem relatively intact.
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Monday, February 6, 2012

Prepping 101: What is Prepping?

One of my 2012 goals is to write a series on prepping.  So, with colder weather impeding my gardening efforts, February seems to be just the time to think about all things preparedness.  To that end, I will be writing one post a week during this month on prepping.

The proper place to start, I think, is to define "prepping" for the FC&G audience.  Many of my readers already have their own definition.  If you have found my blog through The Survival Mom Blog Ring or other prepping-related sites, you undoubtedly know what prepping is and have a start on your own preps.  If you are new, you will need a definition.

Prepping is, essentially, preparing for situations that might take you temporarily or permanently out of contact with the resources that typically support your lifestyle, such as grocery stores, gas stations, cell service, heating oil, or the electrical/power grid.  If you spend an afternoon searching for web sites dedicated to prepping, you will discover that people prep for all sorts of potential emergencies, including but not limited to:
  • Weather-related disasters, like blizzards, hurricanes, and floods
  • Economic concerns, ranging from personal job-loss to full-scale global economic collapse
  • Political disasters, ranging from localized protests to governmental breakdown
  • Energy-related disasters, which can be as "minor" as a local power outage or as major as grid collapse from an electromagnetic pulse
  • Any change in resource availability that might require you to be more self-sufficient than usual
Now, with all due respect to my prepping colleagues online, I must warn you that if you do decide to spend the afternoon hunting for prepping web sites online, it will probably scare the snot out of you at first.  Some of the best-prepared among us seem to have every contingency covered:  They own rural property in an undisclosed location on which they have a few acres for garden and livestock, a water filtration system, back up generators and communications equipment, and their choice of ways to defend it all.  Truly, these folks are all set with the prepper basics of "beans, bullets, and Band-aids."

On the other hand, most of the rest of us are guilty of lapses in judgement that could be very harmful in the wrong situation.  I know that I have occasionally ventured out in the winter wearing peep-toe heels and with a quarter-tank of gas in the car.  What if a snow storm hit and I got caught in a snow drift?  What if I had to transport a family member or colleague with a medical emergency?  

For the remainder of the month, these posts will focus on getting us all to be a little more prepared for emergencies, which is truly the cousin of living sustainably.  Being able to be independent in a tough situation is part of the reason we all want to live more sustainably.  And sometimes, buying a few extra Band-aids is a good first step.

What are you doing to prep?

Related posts:

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Friday, February 3, 2012

What Do the New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Mean?

My newest article on Be Green Info, "What Do the New USDA Growing Zones Mean?" is up!  Please take a look at:

Be Green Info
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