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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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sustainable Pin: Tunisian Crochet

I love to crochet, and I also love to knit.  And I love to discover new methods that create different effects and different types of finished fabrics.  That's why I'm in love with the technique I learned through today's sustainable pin:  how to do Tunisian crochet.

Our inspiration blogger is Crocheting the Day Away.  Go take a look at her excellent tutorial.

Basically, Tunisian crochet uses a really long crochet needle called an afghan needle.  It looks like a long crochet hook with a stopper on one end.  This lets you do a technique that is between knit and crochet.  It uses just the one hook, so that feels very similar to crochet, but it requires you to crochet the stitches onto the needle and then back off, just like knitting.  As it turns out, it seems to have just the right blend of what I like about both knit and crochet, so I am captivated.

One caveat.  When you "turn" at the left edge (which is not really a turn but just a reversal) be extra careful to make sure you make a stitch in that final "bar" at the end.  If you miss it, you will decrease your fabric on that row.  Learning to do this step correctly has meant that my test work piece has a very raggedy left edge, but that's why I always do dishcloths first when I'm learning -- I don't feel compelled rip out errors, because if people are criticizing my dish cloths, they are getting way too involved in the details of my cleaning routine.  

I think this is a great new stitch to have in my repertoire, and I'm very happy to have a new fiber arts skill!
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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August

I have to say, I've actually been dreading working on this post because there is so much accounting involved! Next year, I am definitely making changes to my garden spreadsheet, because it took an hour to record all of the produce harvested in August!

August, obviously, is all about the tomatoes.  All together, I harvested just over 39 pounds of tomatoes in August, which is far from what I have done in the past, but which is better than last year.  (Last year was 28.5 pounds of ripened tomatoes total; I'm still not done this year, so I'm ahead.)  This is all nothing compared to the year I brought in 75 pounds of tomatoes in one week, so we are far, far behind on production, but at least this year I have tomatoes in my pasta, tomatoes to can (some), and tomatoes to eat by the plateful in slices and in salads.

However, the thought of how comparatively bad the tomato years have been around here gives me a bit of a sick stomach ache.  I have to remember that we take the good years with the bad, but in the best years I know that we are hardly even buying groceries in August.  This year was better than last, but it is far from what I would want to have.

However, rounding out the month was the harvest of onions, butternut squash, potatoes, cucumbers, and beans.  I also continued to bring in greens by the handful, which certainly makes this the easiest and highest value-per-ounce crop that I grow.  That's good, because I have greens aplenty started to move into the sunroom, where they will grow much more slowly over winter, but they will continue to grow.  Last year, I grew the summer greens well into the following March, so hopefully I can do so again this year.

And, luckily, we are finally into profit mode for the garden.  Even with the lackluster past couple of years, we are turning a profit with the gardening, which is certainly a help for that grocery bill even if I do still have to go shopping!

2012 Tally to Date
131.9665 lbs. total harvested
$195.62 value of harvest for August
$361.76 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$165.11 profit to date
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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Homemade Tomato Soup

One thing is for sure about September tomatoes -- they aren't August tomatoes.  As the garden starts to wind down, I have a crop of small and somewhat less juicy tomatoes that I nonetheless want to enjoy.

What I haven't enjoyed for a while is a bowl of tomato soup.  Concerns about BPA in the linings of the cans have caused me to avoid my normal brand, and I haven't yet found a replacement I love.  So, what better to do than to make soup with these last tomatoes.

I started with inspiration from  I love recipe sites like this because I browse several recipes in the category I want to make to learn the typical proportions, then I change the flavor profile to fit what I want to eat.  In this case, I learned the proportions of stock to tomatoes, then figured out spicing on my own.

Homemade Tomato Soup
2 c. stock (homemade if you have it)
4 c. tomatoes, cut into quarters-ish (garden tomatoes)
1 t. dried basil (hopefully from the garden)
1 small onion, quartered (again, hopefully from the garden)
a few grinds of salt and pepper
1-3 T flour

Simmer tomatoes, onion, and spices in stock until the tomatoes start to get mushy and the skins peel back -- kind of like you would expect if you were making tomato juice or sauce.  Pass the entire soup through a food mill to remove tomato skins and seeds and onion pieces.  Return to pot and cook on low, adding flour slowly until the soup thickens slightly.

The Analysis

Fast:  I would say I made a batch of this in about 30 minutes total, so homemade still possible on a busy night.

Cheap:  Everything but the flour and the salt and pepper came from my garden or my pantry supply (homemade stock), so I think my cost for two big servings of soup came in at under 15 cents total!

Good:  Soooo much better than the stuff from a can!  I hope I have enough tomatoes to do this at least one more time this year.
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Sunday, September 9, 2012

More About The Container Potatoes

The recent post on container potatoes has stirred up a bunch of questions.  Some of them you can see on the original post, along with my answers, but some were asked of me in person.  So, I thought I'd aggregate what I learned in this post for those of you still curious.  Please, keep posting questions and your own experiences!

What kind of container should I use?
You can really use any container you like, but tall is what you are going for -- I use a plastic decorative planter from the hardware store that stands about three feet tall and two feet wide.  You could use anything -- a half barrel, a whole barrel with the top cut off, an industrial container (as long as it didn't hold chemicals or petroleum or anything you don't want to eat), or a tall-sided raised bed.  Just remember that you don't want to use something so big you can't lug it outside and tip it over when the time comes.  My container is at the outside edge of what I can roll to the garden and tip once the vines are dead, and I am pretty strong for my size (although you wouldn't know it to look at me).  If you grow in a raised bed or accidentally grow in one of your compost bins, you will have to dig in order to get your potatoes.

Can I use plain old store-bought potatoes or do I have to buy seed potatoes?
The beauty of this project is that you will never throw away another potato that started sprouting in your potato bin; just shove it in the container and let it grow.  That said, it is better to buy organic potatoes than conventional potatoes, because the conventional ones are treated with a chemical that discourages greening and sprouting, so they obviously are less likely to grow in your container.  That said, I have grown potatoes from conventional store-bought "seed."  I just no longer like the idea of consuming that growth-retarding chemical, so I buy organic.

What do I fill the barrel with?  How am I going to get dirt to fill it in the winter?
The beauty of this is that potatoes are very shallow-rooted, so maybe 4 inches of good dirt in the bottom is enough for the roots that grow from the seed potato.  The rest is stem; you bury the stem as it grows, and new potatoes grow from the stem.  This is why you want a tall container more than a wide one; you want lots of vertical room for a single potato stem to grow potatoes.

So, what do you fill the container with?  Potato stems aren't picky; I've heard of folks that put just straw or pine needle mulch around their potatoes.  I do a mix of pine needle mulch and some fresh dirt or compost.  I figure the mulch decomposes while my potatoes grow if I introduce the healthy bacteria from the compost, and I will be dumping finished humus on the garden when I harvest my potatoes.  I always keep a container or two of sifted, finished compost in the sunroom over the winter for repotting plants and for projects like this, so I don't need to dig into the compost pile on a 17 degree day.

Is this really worth it?
If you've ever been frustrated by buying a bag of potatoes only to reach in a couple of weeks later and find that you have a pound of sprouts rather than cooking potatoes, you know the answer to this one!  This is a great way to combat the food waste problem in your house, and it will ultimately take a bit of money off your food bill once you start replanting your container from "seed" that you grew yourself.

What are your experiences?
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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sustainable Pin: Homemade Frappuccino

What a crazy week!  Thursday already, and I'm just getting the chance for my first blog post.  Whew!

I'm having enough fun with this Sustainable Pin column that I thought I'd offer another.  Today, it is a recipe for homemade frappuccinos as you would see bottled and sold for about $1.25 a bottle when under the Starbucks label.

Mr. FC&G loves frappuccinos.  We used to buy the bottled variety at the store for him to grab on the way out the door to work, but he quit drinking them because of the presence of HFCS.  Unfortunately, he needs something with caffeine to make sure he is awake to drive to his client sites, which sometimes require early mornings or late nights or both.  So he has switched to energy drinks, which are not a lot better.

Good thing I found this recipe by Christina Flis.  Go check it out.

OK, so the original recipe called for 10 cups of coffee, which is more than my percolator makes.  It turns out I had to adjust the recipe to work with the four cups of coffee I could make at a time, which was no problem.  Obviously, I didn't add the alcohol that Christina added for her birthday celebration, but I like the way she thinks, and I will take note for the future.

Four cups gave me about two and a half bottles of frap, which is good because I only have four of these bottles saved to fill with homemade drinks, although I suspect I will be adding to the supply.  I'm not a cold coffee person, and I thought these were yummy.  Mr. FC&G is a fan of cold coffee, and he liked that these had a bit more coffee flavor than do the name-brand variety.

In the future, I think I will save the extras from our morning coffee (from the pot, not from our cups!) in a carafe in the fridge, then make this recipe when I have 10 cups, which should happen every few days if I make a whole pot of coffee each day.  That will prevent me having to make pot after pot of coffee when I want to do a batch.

The Analysis

Fast:  The recipe is easy to make and easy to bottle if you have some empty, sterilized bottles and a funnel.  Even faster if the coffee is already made; I'm not worried about using "stale" coffee, because these will sit in the fridge anyway.

Cheap:  Even with the name-brand Bailey's creamer (which is totally worth it), this probably comes in at under $1 per batch instead of $1.25 per bottle.  If Mr. FC&G is going to drink something like this, it is cheaper if I make it for him.

Good:  Tasty, and no HFCS.  It is still high in sugar, so you can't drink these continually, but if you need something for a pick-me-up, this will hit the spot.

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