Monday, December 30, 2013

Cheesy Spaetzle

As I mentioned last week, I've pretty much never met a carb I didn't like.  However, this year I've tried to change the proportion of carb to protein that I eat.  One way I'm doing that is to cut out most servings of bread or pasta except for what I make myself.  That way, my carb consumption is limited by my own laziness (or workload), and I can make sure we are eating carbs made with organic flour and pastured eggs.

One easy dish that I like is cheesy spaetzle, a take on macaroni and cheese.  It starts with your own homemade spaetzle -- see a link the the butternut squash variety here -- and then just adds your favorite cheese.  The freshly made spaetzle allows the cheese to melt and blend readily, so you really don't have to make a sauce or bake the macaroni and cheese dish in the oven.  All in all, it turns out to be about as time-efficient as most homemade macaroni and cheese recipes.

Cheesy Spaetzle
One recipe spaetzle (made with 3 cups flour and 3 eggs)
8 oz shredded cheddar

Make spaetzle according to directions above and place in bowl with a pat of butter (about 2T).  When entire batch is made, place in a saute pan with shredded cheese over low heat, and mix gently until cheese is melted.

The Analysis
Fast:  Spaetzle is not particularly fast, but the entire recipe above cooks in about 45-60 minutes, making this an ideal weekend meal or side dish.

Cheap:  Certainly more expensive than boxed macaroni and cheese, but also much tastier and healthier.

Good:  This is a recipe that emphasizes quality over cost or speed.  I use organic flour, pastured eggs, and cheese made from milk with no added hormones, so I know that my body at least has a fighting chance to process those carbs naturally.  A nice dance lesson or yoga class after dinner doesn't hurt either!
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Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas, or Why the Candy Doesn't Work the First Time

I love sugar.  I know that it's more correct these days for those of us writing in the sustainable, "clean food" space to turn up our noses at processed sugars, but I can't help it.  I love the stuff.  Attempts to control the craving limits my intake, but they never truly eliminate the desire.

I get the craving honestly.  Papa FC&G also has what Mr. FC&G calls a "power pancreas," and we both will go to incredible lengths to find the finest examples of dessert.  And every year at Christmas while I was growing up, this turned into the desire to make homemade fudge.

Now, I'm not talking about marshmallow-based fudge or any of the so-called "foolproof" recipes, I mean real, boil the sugar and pray it sets up fudge.  And every year we'd blow it.  The pancreas may be willing, but the ability falls short.

Each year, even though the house was full of cookies, it seemed like the days off of school and work would spur either Papa FC&G or I to say, "let's make fudge!"  Mama FC&G would try to pitch in, but while she has much greater cooking skills, she's a salty snack person and does not have the intrinsic love of sugar.  Nonetheless, the three of us would gather in the kitchen and try to get cooked fudge to set up.

"Is that a soft ball?" we'd ask.  It was a valid question, since none of us had ever succeeded in getting fudge to the actual soft ball stage.  We'd drop blob after blob of fudge into a cup of cold water, occasionally making the water colder, occasionally trying to nudge the blob with a spoon to get it to ball up.  But it just never happened.  Somehow, even a candy thermometer didn't help.

Eventually, we'd declare it "close enough" (never a great idea in candy-making) and pour it into the fudge dish.  The dish was a square glass plate with Ulysses S. Grant embossed at the bottom, and poor old U.S. Grant was routinely buttered and made to sit through the insult of having hot fudge poured on his face.

Of course, the fudge didn't set.  Oh, we left it on the counter, we put it in the fridge, we left it sit overnight, but to no avail.  So finally, the justifications started.

"We could eat that with a spoon."
"Yep, it will taste just fine."
And finally Papa FC&G would deliver the coup:  "That's ice cream topping!"

And so, every year, we'd give up on cutting the fudge and go at it with a spoon.  It tasted just fine, thank you very much.

I thought about this yesterday when making maple sugar candy.  It took me two tries to turn maple syrup into solid candy, which shouldn't have been hard.  But I'm missing the gene that makes me able to turn liquid sugar into solid, and I struggled for an hour until it set up.

I still wound up eating some of it with a spoon.  But at least I didn't pour it all over a long-suffering U.S. President before I did so.  And I looked forward with pleasure to seeing my family this Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, and may your holidays be extra-sweet, whether you can hit the soft ball stage or not!
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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What Gardeners Do in the Winter

As a gardener, once you get that dirt under your fingernails, it's hard to get it back out.  So those of us who spend the entire summer barefoot and smelling slightly of tomato plants find the winter quite a challenge.

Late this fall, I discovered a volunteer tomato bravely starting out life in the garden.  It certainly had no chance in life just sitting in the soon-to-freeze ground, so I transplanted it to a container and put it in the sunroom.

Later, it got too cold in the sunroom, even under grow lights, for such a tender plant, so I moved it into the kitchen where it could sit atop the dishwasher and enjoy the heat, humidity, and companionship available.  It also got to enjoy a grow light I have hanging in the kitchen.

So here we are.  December 17.  Snow outside on the ground, temps below freezing, and I have a tomato plant that desperately wants a garden.  It has the beginnings of little buds on it and everything.  And I still can't bear to throw it out, even though it is behaving as if I live in the temperate zone rather than the frozen north.

Chances are about 50/50 that I will succumb to my desire to garden and wind up dragging a large container into my foyer after Christmas to see if I can let this tomato plant continue to grow.  I am sorely tempted by the idea of getting a cheap pole lamp and a few extra grow bulbs, just to give it a fighting chance.  At the rate this is going, my little tomato plant really wants to bear fruit in February.  I just might let it.

And that is what gardeners do in the winter.
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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Purse as Bug Out Bag

I was joking with Mr. FC&G the other night that, should the zombie apocalypse come, many more women will survive than men.  My reasoning is that we will more than overcome any differential in strength with the fact that we carry bug out bags -- that is, purses -- on a daily basis.

At no time is this idea more relevant than during winter, when even a quick car trip could mean having to haul yourself out of a snow drift or walk unexpectedly when a battery dies.  Properly stocking your bag, while it might not be a hedge against zombies, could at least mean you are more comfortable in any one of several emergencies.

Now, many of the ladies out there probably have me beat as far as organization, but I thought it might be amusing to take a look at what I carry on a daily basis to deal with emergencies:

The Basics
  • bag
  • wallet
  • cell phone
I have a lovely new leather bucket-style bag that will hold a lot of stuff, but that means I can pack it pretty heavy.  Luckily, I also have a great wallet organizer that has room for all of my general wallet stuff, plus enough room for my cell phone.  If I'm making a quick trip into the Post Office to drop something off, I can leave my bag for a moment and just dash in with this satellite.

Foul Weather Gear

  • black wrap
  • gloves
  • fleece ear band
  • extra hankies
No substitute for actually wearing a proper coat and boots of course, but if I got stuck with a stalled car, I would be able to add a layer of warmth if I was walking to a gas station or sitting and waiting for a tow.  This kind of thing actually comes in pretty handy in the summer, too, when overzealous AC sometimes sends me digging for my basic black wrap.

The First Aid Kit

  • OTC medications, like pain relievers, allergy pills, etc.
  • any current Rx medications
  • bandaids
  • feminine hygiene
There's nothing I hate worse than being stuck in a car or an airport and not being able to deal with a headache or other bit of discomfort.  Since you don't always have the time or the ability to run to a convenience store, having the basics on hand is nice.

The Tool Kit

  • small knife
  • screwdriver with interchangeable "bits"
This is my work in progress, but I'm starting to carry a few basics that I could use in an emergency to pry, cut, or otherwise do minor repairs on things.  Although I carry a full tool kit in my car, you would be surprised how many times you wind up needing to open a box or something similar and not having anything readily on hand to cut open a seal.  Of course, I never carry the knife on a plane or any place prohibited.


  • protein bars
  • packet of instant coffee

One of my headache triggers is hunger, and one of my headache cures is caffeine, so I've taken to carrying a couple of emergency basics with me.  This came in very handy on a long flight back from San Diego this summer, when I found that I had no time to eat breakfast and nothing of any interest was available for purchase on the plane.  A couple of protein bars got me home.

Business Gear

  • business cards
  • writing supplies

Obvious, of course, but if you don't think ahead, it is easy to become the woman showing up for a meeting with a huge bag but no pen.  Embarrassing.

Again, I'm sure that many people have me beat with their prep.  However, I've been reading a lot about stocking a "bug out bag," and many of the plans focus on constructing a bag that may not be convenient to carry on a day to day basis.  But that's when emergencies strike.  At least, with a well stocked purse, I'll be able to handle a few situations -- and you never know when I can distract the zombies with a protein bar.

What are your favorite essentials to keep in your bag?
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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: November

It should come as no surprise that I had no real harvest to speak of in November; everything is either inside or in the sunroom, adjusting to the new environment and not producing much, or it is dead or dormant outside.  But November seems a good time to check in on the herb harvest.

When I tally herbs for this project, I tally only the herbs that I've dried and stored, thus replacing jars of organic herbs I would buy at the grocery.  This year, I dried the equivalent of two jars of sage and one of thyme.  The average price for organic herbs is $3.39 a jar, so I saved myself $10.17.

This is a bit inaccurate, however, because of all of the bounty that doesn't show up in the spreadsheet.  I still have plenty of dried oregano, basil, and marjoram in the pantry from last year, so I've made no purchases there.  And, of course, we had fresh basil (which does show up in the spreadsheet) and fresh dill (which does not) all summer.  My sage plants will be healthy until a really deep freeze, so if I want more sage, it is right outside my door.

Overall, this is my best recommendation to gardeners with only a small strip of land:  plant herbs.  Sage will come up year after year to save you purchasing jars at the grocery, and basil is something you can hardly find fresh for retail purchase.  If I ever have just a small strip to garden, I'll put in a couple of tomato plants, a basil plant, and a sage bush, and I'll still be saving money.

Tally through November:
3664.0 ounces harvested
229.0 pounds harvested
Total retail value:  $773.84
Total saved:  $469.96

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

As you enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner today, I wanted to quickly share some of the things I'm grateful for today:

  1. Health and happiness of family and friends.
  2. A beautiful garden that gave me so much joy this year.
  3. A beautiful compost pile that fed it.
  4. A cozy house and a wood pile to keep it that way.
  5. Readers like you!
May you have a blessed day, no matter how you celebrate!

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Results of the Mulch Experiment

Time for a little update!

As I promised this summer, I withheld doing an analysis on my new garden mulching strategy until the season was over.  Well, the season is most definitely over, and the results are in!

As you may remember, I elected to start mulching my garden paths with grass clippings in order to minimize my weeding time.  This became necessary because Mr. FC&G was on a five-week business trip out of the country, leaving me to do all of the outdoor work instead of just maintaining my garden.  (And you know that I'm too cheap to hire a lawn service!)  I spent every day he was gone doing outside work (mowing, weeding, hauling wood, etc.) along with my indoor jobs and my actual paying work, so any efficiencies were appreciated!

I was initially afraid the mulch would compress the soil and make a mat of un-decomposed grass, but that didn't happen.  The grass decomposed at a slow but steady rate, and it certainly kept the weeds down!  I'd say I had about an 80 percent reduction in amount of weeding I had to take care of.

Overall, I'll try this again next year.  I will be lightening the soil a bit because I believe it has gotten too clay-y, a hazard in this part of the Midwest.  However, I don't think the mulch made that problem any worse, and it did make a ready source of compost that will finish decomposing and enriching the soil over winter.  Certainly, I will be sure to spread some humus, or finished compost, around as well.  I expect next year to be better than ever.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lemon Ginger Honey Syrup

This is one of those ideas I'm pretty confident was making its way around Facebook some months ago, but I've lost the original link.  In any event, it is for homemade "cough syrup," and it is fantastic.

With cold and flu season ahead, it is nice to have something that around to help you fight off the bugs.  This combo of raw honey, organic lemon, and fresh ginger might do that; it certainly is a great flavoring.

Raw honey is typically said to have some antibacterial properties and to help you maintain a resistance to your local pollen allergies.  (That seems to be the case for me.)  Ginger is also reputed to have antibacterial properties as well as stomach-calming properties, while lemons are thought to be antibacterial and antiviral.

Put a healthy spoonful of this into a hot toddy made with organic tea and a splash of your favorite alcoholic beverage, and you have a cold remedy that boasts an awesome taste!

Lemon Ginger Honey Syrup
1 organic lemon
a few slices fresh ginger
raw honey

Wash and slice an organic lemon and place (with peel on) in a half-pint jar  Slice the ginger and place in jar.  Fill to the top with raw honey and store in the refrigerator; give it a couple of weeks to blend flavors, then use a tablespoon or so to flavor tea.

For food safety reasons, I would recommend starting each batch with a clean jar, fresh lemon, and fresh ginger slices, regardless how tempting it seems to just fill the jar back up with honey.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Quick Pollo Saltado

One of my favorite local Latin American restaurants recently started featuring the cuisine of Peru, and I have fallen in love with their pollo saltado.  This Peruvian-style stir-fried chicken dish is a wonderful mix of flavors and textures.

Classic pollo saltado involves stir-frying fresh chicken, then mixing it with seasonings and adding a handful of fresh fried potatoes (French fries, if you prefer) at the end.  The whole dish is served with rice to absorb all the juices.

Most of the quick pollo saltado dishes you will find out there call for frozen French fries, but I hate the idea of adding that sort of processed foodstuff to my dish.  Instead, my version uses packaged gnocchi, which you can find in the pasta aisle.  It is a little bit lower in calories and fat than the fries.  My version also makes use of leftover chicken, making this a great weeknight dish after you've made a whole roasted chicken on Sunday.

Quick Pollo Saltado
1-2 cups shredded, cooked chicken (basically, whatever you have leftover)
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 T. olive oil
1 large can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes, chopped, or diced tomatoes (or, use a quart of your own home-canned tomatoes)
3 T. soy sauce
1 t. chili powder
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 package gnocchi, cooked
white or brown rice if desired

In a large saute pan, cook chicken, garlic, and onion in oil until onions are translucent.  Add tomatoes and the juice, soy sauce, chili powder, and fresh cilantro, and cook until simmering.  Add cooked gnocchi, and cook until all ingredients are blended and hot.

Serve over rice if desired.

The Analysis

Fast:  Another 30-minute meal that comes together quickly from leftovers.

Cheap:  Leftover chicken and home-canned tomatoes make this dish very budget-friendly, although it is not terribly expensive if you have to buy everything.  The cilantro may be an issue in winter; it can be omitted, but the flavor will be less intense.

Good:  Although not exactly the Peruvian original, this is a nice option for some different flavors after a big weekend chicken dinner.  I'll be experimenting with turkey if I can score some of the Thanksgiving leftovers!

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October 2013

First, welcome to everyone who found us from Grit magazine!  I'm so happy to have more readers who care about using their gardens to save money!

As promised, here is the second part of the recap I started last week -- the garden tallies for October.  This month, we had our first expenditure since May:  $25.18 for some peat moss and sand to start lightening up our soil in our grow boxes and the main garden.  To recap, for those of you who are new, I include expenditures of "perishable" things, like seeds, plants, and garden soil improvements.  I do not include expenses like tools or trellises that I will use year after year.  After all, no gear, no hobby!

As far as harvests, October is always modest.  We brought in the last of the tomatoes, with 57 ounces of green tomatoes coming inside to ripen.  We had a substantial basil harvest as we put up the last of the pesto, and we harvested nearly a pound of potatoes from our container potatoes.  Otherwise, the harvest included leeks and the last of the peppers.

Moving into November, we can expect a few more herbs and leeks, and some produce from our indoor grow beds and our "micro-orchard" trees.  I have a few things that I really have my fingers crossed on, so stay tuned!
2013 Tally to Date:
228.8 pounds harvested to date
$763.67 retail value
$459.79 net profit in grocery savings
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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow? September 2013

Wow, am I ever behind on this column!  But this is the week that I catch up on my garden tally, and it is time to talk about September!

September was all about finishing up the big crop hauls, and that meant squashes and tomatoes.

Butternut:  191 ounces (11.9 pounds); retail value $36.29
Other squash (spaghetti, pumpkin): 201 ounces (12.5 pounds); retail value $38.19

As always, the squash gave an enormous return on investment; I bought about 3 packs of seeds and had the rest from my seed-saving efforts, so I spent at most $6-7 on seed.  The squash will be an incredible bonus through the winter, because they keep so well in a cool, dry place and become the basis of soups, side dishes, and baked goods.

Brandywine:  55 ounces (3.4 pounds); retail value $12.10
Hungarian: 80 ounces (5 pounds); retail value $17.60
Ox Heart:  92 ounces (5.75 pounds); retail value $20.24
Italian:  212 ounces (13.25 pounds); retail value $46.64
Big Daddy:  234 ounces (14.6 pounds); retail value $51.48
Black Krim:  109 ounces (6.8 pounds); retail value $23.98
Amish Paste:  97 ounces (6.1 pounds); retail value $21.34
Super Sauce:  81 ounces (5.1 pounds); retail value $17.82

I grew the Ox Heart from seed, and I had about four plants going.  Otherwise, I ordered all the plants, and I had three of each variety.  Counting shipping, you can estimate that each variety cost about $12 in plants, so at least all of my tomatoes turned a profit.

On the other hand, my goal is to get 10 pounds of tomatoes from each plant, and none of my plants did that.  The closest were the Big Daddy and the Italian.  Big Daddy is a definite keeper, because it produced lovely tomatoes (I believe most of the tomatoes in the photo are Big Daddy).  I was not crazy about the Italian tomato, which was unremarkable in taste or looks.

Both Super Sauce and Amish Paste are wonderful tomatoes, so they remain on the list for next year, and Black Krim is my gourmet favorite that I would grow at a loss if I had too.  I probably will not grow the Hungarian again, for the same reasons as the Italian -- given that I failed last year with Ukrainian Purple, I am officially calling a halt to tomatoes named for places.  The Brandywine was a luscious tomato, and I will grow that again.

What will I do to increase yield?  Well, I realized from other gardeners that I've let the soil get too dense, as it has been a few years since I've added peat moss.  I will do so this coming season.  And I will discipline myself to remove some of the suckers; I understand they can be rooted to form additional plants.  Again, the goal is 10 pounds per plant next year.

Final September tally for the year:
Total Ounces of Harvest: 3,523
Total Pounds of Harvest: 220.1875
Value of Harvest:  $724.94
Total Profit:  $446.24

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Italian-inspired Spaghetti Squash

The first time I ever cooked spaghetti squash, the whole process turned me off on even growing the vegetable for several years.  My product was watery and unsatisfying, and I didn't think it was much like spaghetti at all.

My problem was that I expected to treat the squash exactly like I would noodles -- pile it on the plate, dip some tomatoes onto it in lieu of sauce, and top with cheese.  This made the whole thing too watery and strange.

I've since learned that you can make a very respectable spaghetti dish with spaghetti squash, but you have to treat it differently to get a great product.  So here's my version of spaghetti, squash-style.

Italian-inspired Spaghetti Squash
1 large spaghetti squash
2 balls (approximately 1/2 pound) homemade sausage
1/2 jar tomato sauce (organic, or your own -- more to taste)
Freshly-chopped basil.

1.  Cook your squash.  Split the squash in half lengthwise, and turn the squash upside down in a shallow pan of water.  Bake at 350 until soft, about an hour.  Remove seeds, then remove flesh with a fork, which will separate the squash into fibers that look like spaghetti.

2.  Fry your sausage into crumbles in a large saute pan.  Add the spaghetti squash, and let cook for a couple of minutes to get any extra moisture out of the squash.

3.  Add sauce and basil; cook until heated through.

Your squash will still have a bit of a toothsome texture, so don't expect this to be truly noodle-like, but it is seriously yummy and a great way to get some extra vitamins and fiber while avoiding a purchase of pasta!

The Analysis
Fast:  Other than the baking of the squash, this comes together quickly, with maybe 30 minutes of actual kitchen time.

Cheap:  Squash and basil from the garden, plus homemade sausage, made this a budget winner for us.  I only had to add a partial jar of organic tomato sauce, on which I caught a very good deal at the store!

Good:  This made about 3-4 servings, which were seriously yummy.
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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Midwestern Seasonal Grieving

If you're fairly new around the blog, you might be under the impression that as a Midwesterner writing about sustainability topics, I must be in sync with the seasons.  That somehow I find as much magic in a cold, clear night with temps in the teens and snow on the ground as I do in the warmest days of July with the garden just beginning to produce.

You'd be wrong.

No, like many Midwesterners, I go through a process of grieving about this time every year, as the days grow shorter and the garden dies off and I'm left with outside clean-up chores done on nippy days.  So, for the benefit of those who don't live around here, let me explain to you the process of Midwestern Seasonal Grieving.

Stage One:  Denial
"No, it isn't going to get cold yet.  Look, it's the end of September and I'm still wearing flip-flops!  I still have tomatoes on the vine," we protest.  We bravely joke about global warming in line at the bank and grocery store:  "Hey, maybe climate change is really a Thing!  Maybe this is all the colder it's going to get," we claim. We keep hoping that, if the globe really is warming, it might bring the first favorable weather shift that the Midwest has seen in millennia.

I mean, look at the photo if you don't believe in Midwestern seasonal denial.  Even my apple tree is trying to pretend it's spring -- and I took that picture on October 27.

Stage Two:  Anger
"OMG!  It is actually snowing out there!  WTF?" we all post on Facebook.  Everyone starts trotting out stories of how miserable they are every year during winter.  Tales of local drivers who have driven here all their lives yet still can't manage to slow down during a sleet storm are exchanged.  Friends who dare to mention or post things about liking snow or enjoying the change of seasons are resoundingly put in their places, along with the snow they so richly deserve.

Stage Three:  Depression
Depression, indeed, and it might actually be seasonal depression, which is a real condition that your doctor will give you happy pills to combat.  However, if you're a Midwesterner born and bred, you probably get a certain amount of relief from making everyone around you miserable while you shiver, shake, and sink further into despondency, the light of your mood growing dimmer as the days shorten.

Stage Four:  Bargaining
"I'm fine with the cold just as long as it doesn't snow," we say.  And then, when Mother Nature laughs, we offer up Christmas, New Years, weekends, or any other day that we don't have to shovel a driveway or get on an icy highway.  Periodically, we celebrate a rare 51 degree day by going outside wearing a fleece shirt but no jacket and declaring that the chores we got done through chattering teeth and numbing fingers count as "gardening."

Stage Five:  Acceptance
The first seeds that we've planted inside under the grow lights sprout, and we content ourselves with the idea that we are starting the summer garden.  We ignore the mounting snow outside, the short tempers in the grocery store, and the puddles that stand under our boots in the entry way.  We settle in to wait for the day that we will first take those little seedlings outside to harden off, and life will be worth living again.
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Friday, October 25, 2013

Using Your Frozen Pesto

Now that we've had a couple of freezes and the basil crop is officially finished for the season -- except for what I have growing in the sunroom -- it is time to think about using that pesto to brighten up our cold months. Here's a really quick and easy meal idea featuring that precious pesto.

This year, I bought some Pesto Cubes, which are trays fitted with small, two-ounce containers that fit in the freezer.  They can hold any sort of herb in oil as well as small amounts of squash puree, but I love them for holding pesto.

Just take one of those two-ounce cubes, thaw, and use it to top-dress your fish before you bake it.  There's no need for any added butter or cooking spray, because the olive oil in the pesto takes care of that.  Here, you'll see I used salmon, and I served it with a mix of our recently-harvested potatoes.  I had both blue and gold potatoes, so I boiled them up in small chunks to enjoy their improbably color mix.

There you have it.  A dinner that is quick enough for a week night and special enough for the weekend!

The Analysis
Fast:  This entire dinner came together in about a half an hour, the majority of which was boiling and baking time.  That's plenty of time to set the table and pour some hard cider.

Cheap:  Obviously, the only thing I bought here was the salmon, so I could dedicate my food dollars to buying wild-caught salmon.  The whole dinner was probably $8, which was dinner for two and at least one lunch.

Good:  Basil is great for your digestion, and I've always considered pesto to be a partial serving of veggies when you are eating it in quantity like this.  It was certainly yummy.
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Monday, October 21, 2013

Introducing Cucumber Key Photography

We now pause in our regularly-scheduled sustainability discussion to present our newest Etsy store:

Cucumber Key Photography

My blog readers are familiar with my exiting Etsy shop, Carrot Creations, which sells products aimed at a sustainable lifestyle:  yoga socks, fleece socks, cloth napkins, and garden seeds.  (Look for a new product line soon:  writer's fingerless gloves!)

Mr. FC&G and I have recently started Cucumber Key Photography.  On this site, we will be offering digital files (jpegs) of photos featuring garden/nature, Ohio sites, California sites, Florida sites, and manufacturing/industrial photography.  I wanted to share this with you for those of you who like to craft your gifts for the holidays.  Many of these images would make great calendar images or the basis for a print collage or other project.

You will note that we are selling non-commercial rights to use the images through that Etsy store.  If you need a listing for commercial use (that is, if you plan to make money using the image), please contact us for pricing.

If you have questions, please message us through Etsy.  And if you have images you would like to see us provide, let us know in the comments below, and we will see what we can do!  (For travel-oriented images, it will at least give us some destinations for our bucket list!)

Now, back to your sustainable living activities.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Week of Groceries

Have you seen this article, which shows pictures of a family's weekly groceries in countries around the world?  I find this kind of thing fascinating.

Our temptation, I think, is to look at the American family and think how horrible the diet must be.  Look at the pizza and pop!  Look at all the name brands!  What are they thinking?  And surely, one might expect a sustainability blog to take this position.

Of course, any given family could improve their diet, but I think this is interesting from a readiness analysis perspective, as I wrote about last week.

Periodically, I like to do an audit of our groceries and see where our weaknesses and strengths lie.  By doing this, I can see where we are the most self-sufficient and where we would be in trouble in the event of some sort of weather disaster, infrastructure problem, or economic downturn.

To give you a feel for it, here is what my typical week of groceries looks like:

Meijer:  We go to the local big box store for paper products, health and beauty aids, some baking supplies, and junk food.  It is kind of embarrassing, frankly -- it is not uncommon for us to have a cart that has toilet paper, window cleaner, shampoo, a bag of sugar, and then a carton of pop and a couple of packages of cookies.  Obviously, the junk food is unnecessary in our diet, so anything that kept us from buying it would not be a problem.  The health and beauty supplies are more problematic.  I mean, I know that mankind lived successfully for millennia without toilet paper, but that doesn't mean I want to do so.  Note to self:  buy extra bale of TP.  We also buy bulk supplies here like organic butter and boxes of dried pasta, but these things are easy to stock up on and keep.

Trader Joe's:  This is where we go for the bulk of our non-local food, because they tend to have products without HFCS or GMOs.  This is an area of great vulnerability.  Without the TJ's run, we would not have access to cheese made from milk from cows who were not given growth hormones, and we would not have access to some other perishable foods that we regularly buy.  This is why, when winter ice storms threaten, we prep with a run to TJ's.

Farmers' Market:  We buy our pastured eggs, our organic beef, our free range chicken, and our pastured pork at the farmers' market, along with our local raw honey and a good deal of our fruit.  The good news is that these products are local and are somewhat insulated from infrastructure problems.  The bad news, of course, is that many of them are perishable and seasonal.  The farmers' market runs through the winter, but the weekly market becomes a monthly market for the cold months.  This means we go to the market on the monthly market day and stock up on meat and honey (obviously, fresh fruit is out of the question in winter) regardless of the weather.

Garden:  The majority of our vegetables come from our own garden, along with most of our herbs and spices and some of our fruit.  Obviously, the weakness is the seasonal nature of the garden and the possibility of a bad crop year, both of which we "solve" by preserving as much as we can.

If our family had participated in that photo project, I wonder if they would have asked us to truly make a grocery shopping trip or if they would have wanted to see the baskets of fresh garden produce and the market bags full of local, pasture-raised meat.  What would your photo look like if you were asked to pose with a week's groceries?
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Friday, October 11, 2013

Sustainable Pin: Paper Towel Rack Bracelet Caddy

It is time for the return of our Sustainable Pin column!

I've wanted to try this pin for a long time; it has been on my Pinterest board for nearly a year.  Visit the original pinner's website here.

This is a paper towel holder for your kitchen, turned into a bracelet rack.  As I explained a while back in my article, "Is Organization Frugal?" organizing your belongings can be a great sustainability trick, because it puts your prized possessions where you can find them.  You are less likely to need to buy other things, and you truly enjoy what you have.

I love to collect bracelets.  Somehow, without my realizing it, I started to feel naked without a bracelet, and I always wear one or more when we go out or when I go to a meeting or to teach a class.  I have a lot of lovely ones, but I tend to forget some of them.

This is a great solution for me.  Yes, it has drawbacks -- your favorites will tend to stay on the top and your less-worn bracelets will sink to the bottom, but I think that's OK.  You still wind up seeing your entire collection, and you can enjoy it as an interactive piece of art!

Plus, I found a bamboo (sustainable material) holder that blends well with my dresser for only $7.99.  Pretty cool.
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Monday, October 7, 2013

Readiness Self-Audit

As I write, the government is currently shut down, or at least 17 percent of it is.  I'm not going to turn this blog into a political one, but I am going to suggest that this is a good reminder to do a readiness self-audit.

Whether you consider yourself a "prepper" or not, it is a good idea to periodically take stock of your dependence on outside resources and construct a plan for making do with less.  This is not an instant fix; instead, think of it as a way to check in with yourself.  Find the problems in your preparation, then try to fix them and see where you are in 6 months.

1.  Income:  You don't need to be on the government payroll to experience a sudden drop in income.  Mr. FC&G and I are both self-employed, and we experience the end of a major project or the loss of a client fairly regularly.  Go through your income streams now (don't forget interest, dividends, part-time jobs, etc.) and see where you are most vulnerable.  Try to come up with alternate income streams that may be more insulated from the threats that could harm your main income.  For example, we have two etsy stores (Carrot Creations and Cucumber Key) that won't make us rich, but that aren't in our primary vertical industries of copywriting and manufacturing.

2.  Outflow:  Take a top-line view of your expenditures, and rank what you would omit first, second, third, etc., if your income was cut.  As I mentioned, we have done this sort of thing so regularly that we don't even have to have a discussion to know that a slowdown in income means no more dinners out, no recreational shopping, and more meals that stretch the meat and rely on vegetables from the garden.

3.  Make it yourself:  As you run out of things or pay bills this week, ask yourself what you could make yourself and what is "mission critical."  To take an example, I know that if our income is cut, I will be baking any cookies and treats we want to eat.  However, I can't make fluoride toothpaste, so that remains on the mission critical list.  I know that I can heat the house in the fall with the wood stove, but I also know that I need to shut off a few rooms in order to maximize the heating we get out of the wood we've cut.

4.  Plan to DIY:  The companion to making things yourself is to be prepared to do so.  I know that I will occasionally try to save money by baking most of our baked goods, so I stock up on organic flour when it is on special, and Mr. FC&G gets pastured eggs at an inexpensive location near one of his clients.  I also freeze organic butter if I've picked up a couple of extra pounds.  What can you stock up on when you're feeling flush that will help you weather a storm.

5.  Be proud:  Once you complete your audit, don't let yourself think of periodic downturns as deprivation or as something you shouldn't have to suffer.  These things stink, but it is great to know how self-sufficient you can be.  Be proud of taking charge of your life when things are tough, and the good times should be smooth sailing!
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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fall on the Microfarm

So here I sit in southwestern Ohio in October.  You might imagine that I'm busy harvesting squash, pumpkins, apples, and leeks, all while enjoying a nip in the air and frost in the mornings.

Nope.  Mild nights and days in the 70s or lower 80s, and I'm harvesting tomatoes, basil, and peppers.  And as far as I'm concerned, this can continue until next March, when it can start to warm up again.

While the tomatoes are truly finishing up around here, several plants are still heavy with green fruit.  With no overnight frost in sight, I have no real incentive to go harvest a bunch of pinkish breaker and try to ripen them inside.  The bonus is, these are all high enough on the plants to be out of the reach of the critters.

The basil is forming another huge bush, even though I've put up several batches of pesto and have some plants brought into the sunroom for fresh basil into the cooler months.  I'm trying to let some of my outdoor basil go to seed in hopes of starting my own for free next year.

The peppers, finally, are pretty amusing.  Especially the Early Crisps that you see above -- those have really been neither.  I tried a new spot for my peppers, and they got insufficient sunlight, so only now are we starting to see some large-ish, blocky green peppers starting to emerge.  The same is true for my paprika, from my own seed line (available here!), which have matured late but are bearing an incredible amount of fruit.

Crazy garden.  But I'll take it -- now, let's hope for a nice, warm, snow-free winter.
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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Now We're Talking Chemical Free: Mr. FC&G Battles the Squash Bugs

Oh, goodness, dear readers; I forgot all about this one! Today I was downloading pictures from my phone, and I came across this ugly little specimen, and it reminded me of a story I wanted to share with you.

A couple of weeks ago, as our squash crops were maturing, we developed quite a squash bug infestation.  You know those ugly, gray, angular bugs?  You know, these guys?  They make my nose itch just to think about them.

Well, we are pretty serious about not using chemical pesticides around here, and we've done a pretty good job controlling pests with beneficial nematodes and plain old "manual mechanical" methods (that is, picking bugs off and squashing them).  But there was no way I was getting near enough to squash these with my bare hands, and we had far too many of them in any case.

Enter Mr. FC&G.  One morning, I saw him inspecting the plants, and the next thing I knew, he was out in the garden vacuuming up the squash bugs in his old shop vac, leaving them to die inside before emptying them out.  He was very seriously and thoroughly vacuuming each leaf, stem, and cluster of bugs on the ground, until the garden was more or less clear of the critters.  And our squash harvest went off without a hitch.

So back off, ladies.  He's all mine.
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Friday, September 20, 2013

Amish Cinnamon Bread

"Oh, so baking has replaced gardening," Papa FC&G commented to me this week.

He's right.  With only a few crops left in the garden, I seem to be using my nervous food-creation energy to bake.  And this week I'm making recipes that friends have shared on Facebook.

This is a recipe making the rounds that is unattributed, but the name is Amish Cinnamon Bread.  I have adapted it slightly to make it mix up easier.  The recipe is huge, enough to make two loaves, but it is easy to half. Then again, with the speed with which we ate the first loaf, maybe it would be more efficient for me to make two loaves at once anyway, even though there are just two of us!

Amish Cinnamon Bread

1 c. butter, softened
2 cups sugar (I used half turbinado and half granulated)
2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk or 2 cups regular milk plus a splash of vinegar or lemon juice
2 t. baking soda
4 cups flour

In a large bowl, mix together all but the flour until the ingredients are well-mixed, then gradually add flour.

In  two greased loaf pans, pour about half of the batter (1/4 in each pan), then sprinkle granulated sugar and cinnamon across this first layer.  (The original recipe calls for 2/3 c. sugar and 2 t. cinnamon mixed and divided between the two, but I was not that exact.)  Top with the remaining batter, and sprinkle more of the cinnamon/sugar mixture across the top.

Bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes or until tester comes out clean. (I needed every bit of 50 minutes in my oven.)  Let cool for 20 minutes before removing from pan.

The Analysis
Fast:  Yes, this recipe mixes up very quickly, especially if you aren't too worried about whether or not you're adding "too much" streusel topping!

Cheap:  As with all baked goods, buying organic butter and pastured eggs bumps my price up a bit, but I still think I'm well under what a bakery loaf would be.

Good:  As I indicated, we finished this loaf in less than a day.  I really should make another for the weekend for our breakfasts!  (This kind of thing would also have been right up my alley for a before-school breakfast when I was a kid, so that's an idea for those who have picky eaters in the house.)
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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Squash Snickerdoodles

This was a great year for squash here on the microfarm, which leaves me with the happy problem of finding ways to use it up.  The biggest producer, by far, was the butternut squash, so I'm always on the lookout for butternut-friendly recipes.

This is a version of a recipe making its way around Facebook (and credited to Annie's Eats).  The original recipe calls for pumpkin puree, which you certainly can use.  I used pumpkin butter in one batch just to use a jar up, and that worked as well.  But the butternut squash gives the cookies a milder flavor that is a nice alternative; you may wish to boost the spices a bit when you use the milder squash.

Squash Snickerdoodles
3 3/4 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg (freshly ground is nice)
1 c. organic butter, melted
1 c. turbinado sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. squash puree
1 egg (free range/pastured is nice)
2 t. vanilla extract

Cut squash in half, remove seeds, and place face down in baking dish partially filled with water.  Bake squash at 350 until flesh is soft.  Let squash cool and remove the flesh.  (This can be done the day before if you wish.)

Combine all ingredients but flour in a mixing bowl and mix with immersion blender until creamy.  Add flour.  You may need to add additional flour if your squash is particularly juicy or if you wind up using a bit more squash.  In that case, boost the spices a bit.

Chill dough, then form dough into balls about the size of a golf ball.  Dip in sugar mixture:
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
dash of allspice

Place balls on cookie sheet and flatten with a fork.  Bake for 12-15 minutes or until done.  (Start checking at 10 minutes until you figure out how much time your squash needs to bake up -- juicier squash requires a bit more time.)

Yield: 3-4 dozen cookies
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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Hope Chest

When I was in college and in my 20s, I had a hope chest in which I kept items that I was saving for my eventual marriage.

Now, I know some readers think that's a delightful old tradition, and I know an equal number think it should have been thrown out with corsets and male-only voting.  But nonetheless, I had one.

There wasn't much in it, and it honestly wasn't even a chest.  When I bought my first house, I kept my hope chest items in the bottom drawer of my china cabinet.  I only had a few things, mostly good serving ware that I had no use at the time for but wanted to save for use at future family holidays.  But the important part of the "hope chest" is that it allowed me to enjoy my dream of being married and having a household that I would fill with things I would enjoy using.  It gave me pleasure.

Well, I realized the dream of finding Mr. FC&G, but I have recently started my hope chest anew.  As we dream about our eventual retirement in Key West, we certainly have the practical considerations put together in the form of retirement and savings accounts that will help us fund the dream.  But I have also started to collect the things we want in our future beach house.

Above you will see one of my "un-quilts," done up in colors that I hope will find their way into our future home.  It is now part of my hope chest.  And this hope chest is entirely metaphorical -- I don't have a special place to put these things, and, indeed, I will start using them right now.  This un-quilt is currently sitting on the bench at the end of our bed, and we will certainly use it for summer picnics and the like.

But its purpose is far larger.  Every time I look at it, I get a renewed surge of energy for working toward our dream.  It is keeping my hope alive, and that makes it part of my hope chest.

What are you doing to sustain your dreams?

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August 2013

If you've been wondering where I've been this week, I've been updating my garden spreadsheet.  With pages and pages of handwritten harvest notes, it took some time to quantify the bounty of August.

The garden became profitable during the first week of August, and we ended the month in the black by over $300.  This means that, had I purchased all the produce I have harvested this year so far at a grocery store, I would have spent $595.47.  Even with the $278.70 expenditure on garden seeds and supplies in the tally, I have thus far carved $316.77 off the household budget.

Some highlights of the month:

  • Even with this being a fairly mediocre tomato year due to the cool, wet summer, I still show all of my tomato varieties to be profitable, with each variety producing more in retail value than I spent on the plants.  The big producers for August were the Italian (168 ounces) and Big Daddy (114 ounces), although the Brandywines and Ox Hearts appear poised for a later showing.
  • This has been a fantastic cucumber year!  Through August, I harvested 1216 ounces (76 pounds), for a total harvest of $195.43 in value.
  • Zucchini have also been wonderful, with a harvest of 594 ounces (37.125 pounds) and a value of $124.74.  In fact, the garden would have been profitable with these two crops alone.
  • Basil was another important crop, with 49 ounces worth $49 coming in through the end of August.  As I mentioned previously, I am now comparing my basil prices to what it would cost to buy fresh basil leaves at the local market.
  • In lesser crops, August saw the harvest of our first apple from our dwarf trees.  It also saw us harvest a few ears of corn, which were yummy until the squirrels started beating us to them!
  • The butternut squash harvest finished up at 177 ounces (9.188 pounds), a value of $33.63.

September is starting with robust harvests as well, so we are nowhere near done with our total garden profit.  I'm so happy that this year has been so much better than the past two with their heat waves and drought.

Finally, you may wonder why I am comparing my prices to retail rather than farmers' market prices, which can sometimes be lower.  This year, I am achieving some consistency by taking only retail store prices in an attempt to demonstrate how much money I save by avoiding the stores for my produce purchases.  You can assume that, had I instead purchased all of this produce at a farmers' market, I would still be in the black, but not by quite as much.  So, even if you don't garden or don't garden extensively, you can still save money by buying direct from the producer.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dill Relish

I've been blessed this year with a really phenomenal cucumber season.  I stopped keeping track of the harvest mentally once I got over 60 pounds, I think it was -- so I can't wait to do my end of the month tally to see how many cukes I brought in this year and what their retail value is.

However, one can only eat so many cucumbers fresh, so I have been making gallons of pickles.  While I have primarily focused on making my grandmother's Bread and Butter Pickles, I also searched for a recipe for more of a "side salad" pickle.

Basically, I wanted a pickle that would more closely mimic the fresh cucumber so that it would be easier to just scoop some onto a plate or into a wrap during the winter.  You can easily do this with bread and butter pickles, but the flavor is definite enough that they pair best with more aggressively-flavored foods.  I was looking for something just a touch milder.

This recipe is adapted from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.  I decided to cube my cucumbers rather than shred them to keep them a better texture, and I used cider vinegar as my base rather than white wine vinegar.  I also used dill weed instead of dill seed for the flavoring.  The result is rather dill pickle-ish, but the sugar and turmeric really smooth out the bite.

Dill Relish
8 pounds pickling cucumbers, cubed
1/2 cup salt
2 t. turmeric
water to cover

1 pound yellow onions
1/3 cup sugar
2 T. dill seed
1 quart cider vinegar

Wash and cube cucumbers and place in a bowl sprinkled with salt and turmeric.  Cover with water and let stand two hours; drain and rinse.

Chop onions and combine with cucumbers and remaining ingredients in a large sauce pot.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.  Ladle into pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace, and cap.  Process 15 minutes in a water bath canner.

Makes about 7 pints; the recipe is easily halved for smaller batches
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Monday, August 26, 2013

Sustainable Bookshelf: Saving the Season

(Disclosure:  I received a review copy of this book from Random House/Knopf.  The opinions in this review, as in all of my posts, are mine alone.)

It is so difficult to find a really great new book on food preservation.  Of course, everyone starts out with some of the basics:  The Ball Blue Book and Putting Food By are two of my stand-bys that I recommend to beginners.  But if you want to go beyond that, you typically find books with one or more of these problems:
  1. They assume you know exactly what things should look like at every step.
  2. They assume that you are either preserving bushels-full (and want recipes for giant quantities) or cups-full (and want to load up on expensive, luxury add-ins).
  3. They are boring to read.
This is why I was so thrilled to receive a review copy of Saving the Season.  Kevin West manages to solve all three of these problems in a book that is just beautiful to hold.  (And I do sometimes judge books by their covers and paper quality -- once a mark of literary shallowness, but I think a reasonable criterion on which to judge paper additions to your library when you also have e-book options.)

First, West assumes that you know nothing of the canning process.  He includes line drawings of all of the necessary equipment, and he isn't afraid to add explanations about things he misunderstood while learning.  West's explanation of Basic Strawberry Jam is a triumph in this regard -- he devotes two whole pages to talking the novice through a recipe that most experienced canners know by heart and can do in their sleep.  But I am confident that, given the right equipment, the virgin canner could walk through this explanation step-by-step and emerge with a batch of impressive-looking jam.

This attention to detail continues to the photography.  The photography is beautiful, but, more important, it is sometimes messy.  That is, it shows what food looks like smeared on a plate or a utensil, something that is important for canners hoping to learn what things should look like.  I absolutely swooned over a photo of jam jars that had vented hot jam onto towels beneath.  It was artistically beautiful, but, more important, it showed what that accident actually looks like, which should dilute the terror that you feel the first time it ever happens in your kitchen.

Second, West does an admirable job of including both basic and gourmet recipes for small farmers' market purchases and home gardens.  I grow a big suburban garden, but I don't bring in produce by the bushel.  However, I favor the basic recipes, and I'm often faced with cutting down recipes that are designed to fill a 9-quart canner.  This book is idea for figuring out what the basic way of preserving a variety of crops is, in quantities that are easy to manage and easy on the budget.

Then, he includes the specialty recipes that will have you running for additional add-ins that may not be frugal, but are sure to impress your guests and gift recipients when they find out you make your own aromatic bitters or cocktail onions.  I don't always appreciate recipes that send me to several stores for a pinch of this and a jar of that, but occasionally I will want to make something truly gourmet, just because it is something special for me and my family.

Finally, the book is fun to read.  West is, first and foremost, a writer, and he includes stories, memories, poetry, and detailed explanations highlighting his experiences with and knowledge of food.  It is these additions that make the book something that the reader will keep out in the kitchen year round, reading stories of tomatoes in the depth of winter, then turning to instructions on how to make marmalades from the organic citrus you find at your favorite bodega.  These recipes are almost enough to make me break my "eat local" pledge, at least long enough to get enough citrus so I have something to can in January.

Saving the Season on Amazon
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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Saving Pepper Seeds

Apologies for the erratic nature of the posts lately!  I'm always frustrated when the blogs I read can't stick to a publication schedule, yet here I am doing the same.  If it is any excuse, I am spending my blogging time putting up pickles.

In any event, this is a quick tip that most of you already know, but which would make the beginnings of a great new gardening project for you or a fabulous homeschool project for your kids:  saving seeds.

One of the great things about growing "heirloom" or "heritage" varieties of plants is that the plants are open pollinated, meaning you can save seeds from one generation to the next and expect the plant to breed true unless it has accidentally crossed with another plant.  So saving seeds is another easy sustainability skill that lets you become that much more independent in your food-growing efforts.

Some seeds, however, are more difficult to save than others.  Tomatoes famously like to go through a process similar to what they'd experience if the fruit fell from the plant and decomposed before the seeds will sprout (although I have fairly good luck with some varieties just rinsing and drying the seeds).  Carrot seeds must wait until the plant flowers in its second year.

Peppers, however, are a great beginner's seed to save.  Just pop the seed core from the pepper while you are cooking and lay it on a plate to dry.  In a few days, you can flake the seeds off, let them finish drying for another day or two, and then put them in a bottle or envelope for next year.  I keep mine in an old amber yeast jar so they are protected from exposure to light, and I store them in a cool place.

Other plants also save seeds easily, including beans and squashes.  What seeds will you save this year?

The Analysis
Fast:  Saving pepper seeds is as easy as drying them on a plate.  A few minutes total of your time, at most.

Cheap:  The whole purpose of saving seeds is saving money -- just a couple of peppers will give you more seeds that buying an entire pack for $3.50 or more.

Good:  This is another step to sustainability, or a great science project for the kids that will go all winter, starting now with seeds and progressing to starting them in February and planting the plants next spring.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Praise of the Black Krim Tomato

If you grow your own tomatoes, you have the luxury of choosing varieties that would probably not make it to many farmers' markets, let alone to a supermarket.  Such is true of my favorite:  the Black Krim.

The Black Krim is my favorite so far of the entire family of "black" tomatoes.  As you can see in the picture, they aren't really black, but when they are peeled and sliced, they look kind of bruised and beaten.  Their flesh ranges from a deep purple through red and into a rather sickly green, making them one of the least attractive tomatoes to see on your plate.

To top it all off, they are not very satisfying to let ripen.  They have dark green shoulders that can take up as much as a third of the fruit, and these green shoulders never turn red -- or, at least, they never do for me.  Instead, that is where the tomato seems to hide all of its core, so that it is easier to just chop off everything green before you peel or slice.

But once you deal with this, they are a wonder to behold.  A perfectly ripe Black Krim has skin that slips from the fruit with the barest touch of a knife, making them perfect for people like me who like to peel their tomatoes before slicing.  They are extremely juicy while being extremely meaty, which means that they are a wonderful addition to sauces and juices.

The flavor, though, is what brings me back.  They are acidy, with a tingle on the tongue that reminds me of the old fashioned tomatoes my Grandma grew.  And they have a "dark" undertone to their flavor that is decidedly meaty, rather than hewing toward the "berry" flavors that some slicer tomatoes can have.  Make no mistake, this is a savory tomato, not a sweet one.

My garden critters love the Black Krims as much as I do, and since the plants tend to set fruit near the ground, I lose a certain percentage every year.  But the ones I get to eat are pure heaven, and I am not exaggerating to say that I have dreams of Black Krim tomatoes in the depths of winter.

What is your favorite tomato variety?
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Friday, August 9, 2013

Esther Simpson's Tomato Juice

August is tomato month, and every time I can tomato juice, I think of my Aunt Esther.

Aunt Esther had a truly magical garden and canning operation.  If we visited her during the summer, she would say, "let's see what we can get ya" and take us out to the garden.  Most times, we would leave with a bag full of tomatoes, beans, and whatever else was ripe. If she happened to be getting ready to can beans when we arrived, we would sit on the porch and snap beans with her.  It is still one of my favorite things to do.  Her basement was a canning kitchen, filled with jars of finished products and cabinets full of spices where she could do her canning and keep a little cooler.  It was a great place to explore.

When I wanted to learn how to can, she sat down and wrote out my grandmother's bread and butter pickle recipe for me and her instructions for making tomato juice.  She sent us home to make our first quarts of juice with the loan of her ricer (which you may know as a food mill).

The recipe below is Esther's, and you will notice that it is dead simple.  Like the bread and butter pickle recipe, it was intended for open kettle canning, in which the hot juice is put into a hot jar and allowed to seal without further processing.  I've added the processing times to comply with current thoughts on canning.  I've also added the lemon juice; modern hybrid tomatoes are bred to be less acidic than traditional heirlooms, so this small bit of lemon juice keeps you on the safe side of acidity.

Further note:  the picture above is not the best, but I wanted new canners to see the way the tomato pulp sediment separates out from the liquid when the jar has been standing for a while.  This is normal.  It is easy to freak out a little when you see this the first time you put up tomato juice, because we are all so accustomed to the overly-processed stuff we get in the store or a restaurant.  Just shake the jar up before you drink.

Esther Simpson's Tomato Juice
Tomatoes (Seriously, just whatever you have -- the amount of juice depends a great deal on the size variety of tomatoes you've harvested.  Try to have at least 5 pounds or so to be sure you will get a quart.)
Lemon juice

Cut out cores, stem ends, green places, and bad spots.  Cut into quarters and place in a large pot. Use your hands to squeeze the tomatoes to make juice.

Let the tomatoes come to a boil, stirring throughout.  Let boil at least 5 minutes or until peels start to leave the pulp.  Run the pulp through a ricer to remove the seeds and peels, and return the juice to the pot.  Reheat to a full rolling boil.  Can in hot, sterilized jars to which lemon juice (1 t. for quarts, 1/2 t. for pints) and salt (1 t. for quarts, 1/2 t. for pints) has been added.

Process in a water bath canner for 35 minutes (for both quarts and pints).

Note:  If you are not a tomato juice fan but want some wonderful basic sauce, just continue to cook the juice until it boils down into sauce consistency.  Can the same way.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July 2013

We're almost there!  By the end of July, the garden was very close to breaking even and moving into profitability!

The garden spreadsheet has gotten too large to share in its entirety on here, so I'll have to share some highlights with you:

  • Expenditures held steady at $278.70.  It is very unlikely that we will make any more purchases, unless I pick up some lettuce seeds on clearance.  So, we have a stable target.
  • The blueberries did much better this year than expected.  When I first looked at my one productive bush (along with two that set just a few berries), I predicted we would harvest 12-16 oz. of berries. Instead, we wound up with 26.5 oz. for a value of $11.93.
  • Zucchini, of course, have been very productive.  Organic zucchini were $3.36 a pound here, and I brought in 440 oz. (27.5 pounds) through the end of July, for a value of $92.40.  We have eaten zucchini at nearly every meal, put up zucchini relish, and given several pounds away.
  • Cucumbers, too, were $2.56 a pound, and we have brought in 607 oz. (37.9 pounds) through the end of July for a value of $97.99.  We are eating cucumbers at every meal too, plus turning lots of the cukes into bread and butter pickles.  For a couple of weeks now, I've been making pickles every other day.
  • Corn in the store is $0.49 per ear, and we have harvested two ears.  The squirrels are fighting us for the rest.
  • Likewise, organic apples are $0.89 a piece, and we have harvested one.
  • Basil, as I mentioned before, is hideously expensive in the store, at the equivalent of $1.00 per ounce for fresh leaves.  I've brought in 7 ounces for cooking thus far.
  • Organic tomatoes on the vine are $3.49 in the store, and I've brought in 5.6 pounds so far for a total of $19.80.  So far, the Burpee Super Sauce are the first to crop, so they are ahead in the production race.  However, there are lots of green tomatoes out there on all the plants, and the mild weather means that the plants continue to set fruit.
Overall, I'm pretty sure that the garden is already profitable as of this writing, or at least close.  It is a pretty good garden year, and I can't wait to see how much produce I can grow on a small suburban lot with fairly marginal soil.

How is your garden growing this year?
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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lillian Rumsey's Bread and Butter Pickles

Some of my best memories of my grandmother come back to me in summertime.  My grandparents owned a farm, and, while I suspect some of my cousins have fond memories of the tractor and the animals, my favorite memories are of the gardens.  Grandma and I would go out to pick strawberries together, eating as many in the field as we brought into the house.  They were never so sweet inside as they were outside in the sunshine, giggling together about our berries.

When I started learning to preserve food, I "inherited" Grandma's bread and butter pickle recipe.  Although we never got to put up pickles together, making this recipe reminds me very strongly of her.  I can feel her with me while I'm out in the sun picking the cucumbers, and I can imagine her cutting her produce and turning it into pickles just as I do.  Nothing says summer happiness to me quite like Grandma's pickles.

Lillian Rumsey's Bread and Butter Pickles
(Note:  This recipe makes 4 quarts, but it is easy to quarter and just make a quart at a time if your garden is small.  That's what I do.)

12 cucumbers (6-7 inches long each)
8 small white onions
2 green peppers (I usually omit these because my peppers aren't ready at the same time as the cukes)
1/2 cup salt or enough to wilt the veggies

Pickling Syrup:
5 cups sugar
5 cups cider vinegar
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 t. celery seed
2 t. mustard seed

Wash cucumbers, peel, and slice thin.  Slice onions and green peppers.  Place in a bowl layered with salt. Weight the veggies down with another bowl filled with ice.  Let stand for 3 hours or until veggies are wilted.
Drain and rinse thoroughly.

Mix together pickling syrup and boil 5 minutes.  Add drained veggies and bring to a simmer.  Can in hot, sterile quart jars.  Process in water bath canner, 10 minutes for pints/15 minutes for quarts.

(Note:  The original recipe does not include the processing in the water bath canner, as this recipe was intended for "open kettle" canning, a type of canning that relies on the heat of the jar and the contents make the jar lid seal.  Pickles were often canned this way; dill pickles were often not canned at all, residing for their entire lives in a crock.  The pickling syrup or brine was usually enough to keep them preserved.  In deference to modern food safety norms, I have added the water bath canning step.)
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Monday, July 29, 2013

Zucchini Relish

One of my favorite ways to use up the zucchini crop is to make zucchini relish.  This is a wonderful condiment that we eat all year on hot dogs.  I like to tease Mr. FC&G and credit him with the concept of mustard, ketchup, and relish on a hot dog, since he was the one that introduced me to the combo.  This is our favorite relish for this classic American treat.

I've adapted this recipe from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.  I wilt my zucchini more than they call for, shred the zucchini instead of chopping it, and omit the peppers.

Zucchini Relish
About 2 cups shredded zucchini (3 medium or 2 large-ish zuchini)
1 cup chopped onion (about 1 medium to large)
1/3 cup salt
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 t. celery seed
1 t. mustard seed
1 cup cider vinegar

Shred the zucchini and chop the onions -- place in a non-metal bowl coated with the salt, and let wilt for at least 2 hours.  Drain and rinse the mixture.

Combine remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then add vegetables.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Pack into hot jars and process 10 minutes for half-pints, 15 minutes for pints.  Make 4 half-pints or 2 pints of relish.

The Analysis
Fast:  This relish actually comes together a bit faster than traditional cucumber relish, since you don't have to wilt as much water out of the zucchini as you do the cucumbers.

Cheap:  With zucchini coming in fast and furious from the garden, this is a great way to capture the bounty.

Good:  The taste of the celery seed and onion really comes through, with very little zucchini taste involved.
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Beauty of Vertical Gardening

If you are a suburban gardener like me, you know that your gardening space is finite.  This is especially true if, like me, you prefer to use a broadfork or other manual method to prepare your soil in the spring.  It is so much better for the soil, but you simply cannot manually plow acres and acres of land, even if you had them.  Kind of gives you an appreciation for ancient civilizations.

So, whether you are limited by available land or available muscle power, you want to get the biggest harvest possible out of your land.  And there is no better way of doing this than vertical gardening, or "growing up."

At the right, you can see my bean pole.  I planted beans in a circle around a decorative wrought-iron post, and they have been happily climbing all summer.  I was planning to string some twine from each plant up to the top of the post to give them something easier to climb, but they all "reached out" for the post, some covering as much as two feet to make contact and start twining.  I've even planted some beans in the hanging baskets you see, just to add to the fun.

On the left, you see a picture I took a few weeks ago of my cucumber trellis, which I love and which I have written about before.  It is still going strong and ensuring that I have great cucumber harvests.  Currently, my cucumber vines reach far above these trellises, making sort of a mountain of cucumber vines that I paw through twice a day to do my harvest.  Take that, everyone who has ever told me that cucumbers have to be well-spaced to do well in a garden!  There are probably 20 or more individual plants on each side of this trellis, and they are all bearing fruit.  The only trouble I have is reaching the carrots that are growing under the trellis, but hopefully this just means I have to keep my hands out of them until they are larger and cucumber season is at an end.

With all of the vertical gardening and then the tall plants like corn, walking into our garden is like entering into a magical tunnel.  Mr. FC&G says that it looks like a formal garden, and it does -- a formal garden that is cutting my food bill every time I harvest!
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Friday, July 19, 2013

Gardening, Food Preservation, and the Freelance Life

I just got back from the farmers' market, where I bought 9 pints of fresh raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries.  While Mr. FC&G and I will certainly eat our fill from our "berry bowl" that we keep in the fridge, I will also be turning some of these into the yummiest of preserves and the best of frozen fruit.  We know that we'll enjoy them in winter.

While this is a step toward living sustainably, it is also a natural outgrowth of the fact that we are both small business owners.  Read any article on freelancing, and you almost certainly will see the advice to sock a chunk of your income away in savings to guard against the inevitable unevenness in workload.  But what most people don't tell you is that you also have to have mechanisms in place to lower your outflow of cash when times are rough.  For us, gardening and food preservation help bridge any gaps.

As you know from reading this blog, I keep a fairly obsessive tally of the retail value of my garden harvests. Even in the worst years, the garden more than pays for itself, giving us fresh, organically-grown produce that has a retail value far above our investment in seeds and plants.  Obviously, this decreases our food bill overall by that amount while we eat healthy, fresh food.

By preserving some of this bounty (and supplementing from the farmers' market), we are also guarding against income fluctuations in non-harvest months.  If neither of us are having a particularly productive February, for example, we know we can cut back our grocery budget and still eat well by relying on our stocks of tomato sauce, chili sauce, soup stock, jams and preserves, and relishes, all of which add nutrition and interest to very inexpensive meals.  Some of our preserved food, like my bread and butter pickles, are also popular gifts in our family.

It is unconventional advice, but I swear by it.  If you are contemplating a freelance/small business career, you simply must garden as much as your property allows and preserve food to the best of your abilities.  Your budget and your business will thank you.
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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In Praise of Basil

In These Happy Golden Years, the final "official" volume of the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder, there is a charming scene in which Laura and her new husband Almanzo are visiting another couple when they are caught in a hail storm.  Almanzo, always equally charming and annoying (or so I've always thought), tries to put a good spin on things by commenting that "the rich man gets his ice in the summer, but the poor man gets his in the winter."  He then suggests making ice cream.  I've always kind of hoped Laura gave him a good earful in the buggy ride home for that irresponsible comment.

Anyway, I always think of that when I harvest basil, but in reverse.  If you grow basil in your garden, you are simply awash in the stuff this time of year.  The bushes are huge, and if you take your fresh basil by pruning them right above where they fork, they will continue to spread and get bushier and bushier.  I eat as much basil as I like all summer long, and I freeze a good bit in oil for winter pesto.

Contrast this with the store-bought version.  On the one hand, I'm happy to see fresh basil leaves sold in grocery stores like Trader Joe's.  But I must say that one look at the price should send you straight to buy your own plant.  Fresh organic basil leaves are $2.99 for 2.5 ounces.  Yikes!  Of course, this must reflect the absolute difficulty of transporting a very fragile, temperature sensitive herb from where it is grown (Florida and Massachusetts by the label) to a Trader Joe's, then keeping it in any kind of condition until purchase.  I figure, based on my experience with basil leaves, that these are good for maybe a week from harvest to eating, even assuming modern packaging and transport.

I'll be using this price this year in "How Much Does a Garden Grow," although I'm going to cut it a bit to $1.00 per ounce to take into account that I bring my basil into the house on the stem, which weighs up a little.  Even so, I can easily eat $1.00 of basil a day for the entire summer, which makes it a luxury that would start to get pricey if I got my basil anywhere but my back yard.

I guess the rich can have their basil in the winter, but I have mine in the summer.

The Analysis
Fast:  Trimming basil from your own garden or container is way faster than going to the store.

Cheap:  Look at those prices!  You pay for a basil plant within 3-4 ounces of harvested basil; the rest is pure garden profit.

Good:  I can't imagine the store-bought kind will have the aroma and flavor of fresh-harvested, with the leaves full of their aromatic oils.  Yum.  Affordable luxury indeed.
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Friday, July 12, 2013

Five Sustainable Ways to Live Healthier

As promised Wednesday, here is my "prescription" for fighting unhealthy obesity and living a healthier life. Please note that I am not a doctor, a dietician, or a Certified Diabetes Educator.  You should consult one or more of the above if you want to try an idea you think might conflict with an existing health condition, prescription, or lifestyle plan you already have in place.  This is what works for me, and I will certainly admit I don't check all of the boxes all the time!  Try these ideas and see if they work for you.

Five Ways to Live Healthier

  1. Consider fruits and vegetables to be "free foods." You have to be responsible for anything you put on them -- salt, sugar, dressing -- but you can eat as much of the underlying fruit or veggie as you want without counting calories or feeling guilt.  Most are pretty low in calories anyway, especially compared to the nutrition they provide. I suppose it is theoretically possible to eat enough avocados to gain weight, but I honestly don't think anyone can sustain that level of consumption for very long. Too often, we hear advice such as that I once heard repeated that one should decrease one's consumption of yellow and orange vegetables because they lead to weight gain.  Even if I thought that was true, I'm going on the record to say that I don't think that excess consumption of carrots and squash are part of this country's obesity problem.
  2. Avoid food with HFCS or preservatives; meat from animals who received growth hormones, prophylactic antibiotics, or an inappropriate diet (such as all corn for cattle, which are ruminants and eat grass); and plant foods that have been exposed to herbicides or pesticides.  Avoid food from GMOs, and try to cut your exposure to BPA in your food containers and other places in your environment.  Some of these will ultimately be proven to be absolutely safe.  Some of these will be thought safe until that is disproven some years in the future.  Some we are pretty darn sure right now are unsafe.  But all of these things raise caution flags, and cleaning up your diet in this way can't hurt.  Far better to eat three cookies made at home from unbleached flour, turbinado sugar, organic butter, and free range eggs than to have three cookies filled with HFCS and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives.
  3. Pick a hobby that requires you to move your body, and practice that hobby for its own sake, not for the exercise.  We dance, swim, and garden, but I am perfectly happy to recommend golf, shuffleboard, or darts-throwing if that is where your heart lies.  Just get up out of your chair and start doing something you want to get better at, and along the way you will move around a little or a lot. If you need to, treat yourself to the gear that goes with your hobby, like the proper equipment or a magazine dedicated to the subject.  Just watch out for your attitude.  If you find yourself saying "I've got to X tonight" about your hobby, you are not doing it for enjoyment, and you will quit.  Pick another hobby.
  4. Build in some movement during the day, especially after meals.  This doesn't have to be a big thing, either.  Go out and walk around the yard after dinner, or walk to a sunny spot to eat your lunch rather than driving to a restaurant. Bike to a local errand, or swim a couple of laps in the pool when you take your family on the weekend.  I'm a big fan of the "non-smoking break," where you take 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon to get up from your desk and walk around outside, just as you would if you were taking a smoke break, but without the tobacco.  Make that an expectation at your place of business if you can.
  5. Find a way to get in touch with your soul.  We practice yoga once a week at least, but you may like to build in some meditation or a religious service if you are so inclined.  Whatever helps you deal with stress and get back in tune with the moment is a great thing and can only help you live a healthier life.
What are your favorite healthy living tips?
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