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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