Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: January and February 2013

Bet you thought I forgot about this column, eh?

To the contrary, it is just that nothing much has been going on in the old microfarm.  As you can see below, the past two months have brought no harvests (although I am eagerly anticipating pulling some leeks that have overwintered in the cold frame), and I have placed my main seed order for the year.  So, we are starting out the year as many businesses do:  in the red.  I'm sure that will change quickly.

Things I'll be doing differently this year:

  • I've improved the spreadsheet for my own sanity.  As you can see below, I finally wised up and will be counting my harvest values in price per ounce.  I will also have weight and value columns for each veggie (or each variety, in some cases) so I can track the best performers.
  • I'm back to some of my old favorites.  Namely, it is back to the Burpee Picklers and Straight Eight cucumbers.  Bread and butter pickles, here we come!
  • I am returning to my traditional practice of buying mostly tomato plants, rather than starting them from seed.  The past two years I have grown mainly from seed, and I really think that plants would have worked better with the variable weather we've been having.  Specifically, I think the plants are generally a bit older and better established at planting time than I can get mine when started from seed, and I need them to be able to set fruit before any late June/early July hot spells make it too hot for them to blossom.  The order you see below includes about 12 plants, and I will be buying more at the greenhouse, along with starting a few from seed and nurturing the ever-prolific volunteers.
  • More squashes!  Since we do such a good job with our squashes, and since the winter variety store so well in our lower level, I will be growing more squashes and a wider range of types.
What are you planning for your garden this year?

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Judging by some of the popular press, the go-to gift this Christmas was a SodaStream, a device that lets you carbonate water to make your own soda pop and "fizzy" drinks.  I put one on my wish list, and Santa complied.  I'm happy to say, I think it has found a home in our sustainable lifestyle!

The device is easy to use.  You fill a BPA-free plastic bottle with cold water and screw it onto the front, then depress a button to deliver carbon dioxide into the water.  The only part you replace regularly is the CO2 canister, and you are supposed to be able to exchange an empty for a discount on a full one.  (I have yet to try this, but we have a local store that participates.)  The water can be as fizzy as you like, and I've achieved a satisfying level of carbonation.

The SodaStream is designed to work with custom flavors, which I don't really care for.  The SodaStream flavorings include sucralose, which I choose not to consume.  However, I have achieved a lot of success with making carbonated fruit juice (at a 50/50 ratio of juice to carbonated water) and with using my own soda mix.

Soda Mix
1 c. water
1 c. sugar
1 T. Homebrew Soda Pop Mix

Heat the sugar and water to make simple syrup, then add the flavoring and mix well.  Store in the fridge until you want a glass of soda pop.  You will use a tablespoon or two of this mix to 12 oz. of carbonated water, depending on your desired sweetness.

Mixing your own soda pop this way allows you to control your flavor and sugar content, which we find nice. We are big fans of a soda brand called "GUS," which stands for "Grown Up Soda."  GUS is a bit less sweet and more "dry" than conventional soda pop, and therefore it has fewer calories.  With a little experimentation, we have learned how much of the homemade soda mix above we need to put in our glass in order to achieve just the flavor we want.  We find we have more success if we mix each glass individually rather than trying to mix a half a gallon of soda pop in a Mason jar and store it in the fridge.

Obviously, the SodaStream brings a lot of advantages.  Overall, it should be cheaper to enjoy soda pop and, especially, sparkling fruit juice.  There is no cross-country transportation of vast quantities of water in bottles, so less waste, less transportation cost, and less environmental impact.  Best of all, you have the control you want over your sparkling beverages.

The Analysis

Fast:  The whole process takes a bit more time than popping open a can, but it becomes second nature to carbonate the water and be ready to mix whenever you want a beverage.

Cheap:  There will likely be a bit of savings in the soda pop, but the real savings is going to come with the sparkling fruit juice, which is very expensive at Trader Joe's.

Good:  The fad of the year is a success in this house!
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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Commonplace Book

More and more, we live in a world of video.  People are so accustomed to communicating this way that some days my Facebook feed is filled with nothing but video snippets of favorite songs and home movies -- like I have time to listen to everyone's favorite song for 3 minutes each and try to divine what they are feeling, and then spend a few minutes with each person's home video.

I'm not trying to be misanthropic -- really -- but I just don't have the time to consume my information delivered in video format, especially not when I read and absorb printed material so quickly and completely.  That's why, this year, I finally started a commonplace book.

A commonplace book is somewhat akin to a journal, except that it isn't attempting to be a coherent narrative. Rather, it is a collection of bits of information, perhaps newspaper articles, quotes, and facts that don't fit into any other place.

Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book, as did many others of his era.  If it is good enough for Mr. Jefferson, it is good enough for me.

I am using mine (yes, you see a blank page here, because I'm not nuts enough to show you all of my secrets!) to collect quotes and facts that I want to remember but that I don't want to start an entire file for.  For example, we have a favorite room at our favorite destination resort, and I don't want to resign this little reminder to a file that I would have to dig out next year.  So, it is one of the first things I wrote in my book.

Or, I've been investigating the ingredients and properties of some OTC remedies.  Eventually, I might want to pull all this research together to help me make purchase decisions, but right now I'm just jotting down facts as I learn them and accessing these as I go.

So far, I've been keeping my book for almost two months, and I have about three pages of such information, along with quotes and ideas I've cut out of other sources.  I find that it is fun to read through when I'm trying to gain inspiration for the day.  And it is a great reminder that not everything has to be organized into discrete little files that are kept on the computer or in a file drawer.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sustainable Souvenirs

So we're back from an absolutely wonderful week in Key West, made all the more sweet by the fact that we dodged some cold weather and enjoyed a week of full sun and near-80 temps.

Every time we go away, I struggle with the temptation to bring home souvenirs.  Now, in the case of Key West, we are far beyond the need for first-time-visitor memories, so it is easier to buy only one or two things, but every trip regardless of destination brings with it the temptation to shop.

Now, as you know, I'm not really trying to embrace a consumption-free lifestyle here.  I do really like my little luxuries and treats, and they are made affordable by my frugal ways.  Why buy commercially-made laundry soap when you can make your own and use the difference to buy shoes?

However, I have become taken with the idea of making purchases in my favorite places that I will use regularly, ensuring that I really continue to remember that experience.  I have treasured a pair of glass tumblers I purchased at Southernmost Beach Cafe a few years ago, one of my favorite spots in Key West.  Using these tumblers at night as water glasses ensures that I go to sleep remembering sipping a perfect mojito while looking out at a beautiful beach.

This time, I found a wonderful little knitting store, and I purchased a couple of crochet hooks -- a size I needed in my collection, and a duplicate of my favorite size.  I can already tell that I will think of my favorite destination while I crochet, which will make a pleasant leisure activity even nicer.

Again, don't get me wrong:  I do still buy more typical souvenirs on trips.  I have my collection of tshirts and tank tops from favorite bars, clubs, and destinations, and I probably won't give that up any time soon.  But rather than buy a tshirt everywhere I go on every trip, only to see them ultimately wear out and become dust rags, I'm trying to make purchases that will really enhance my daily life.  That makes the experience of a vacation last even longer.

What kinds of things do you bring home from trips?  Or do you resist entirely?
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Friday, February 8, 2013

A Brief Break

Fast, Cheap, and Good will be taking a brief hiatus through Sunday, February 17 for some reorganization and regrouping.  Blogging will recommence that week.

If you have found your way to this blog via our Etsy store, Carrot Creations, please note that product shipping will recommence on Sunday, February 17.

Until then, please feel free to comment below if there are sustainability topics you would like me to cover this spring!

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Mid-Winter's Supper

I have read at least one source that suggested that one of the reasons people survived February in the Middle Ages -- a month that spans between starting to run out of stored food in January and being able to harvest early greens and young animals in March -- is because the stored rye used to start going bad about that time.  Rye tends to be a great breeding ground for ergot, which, when ingested, apparently produces an LSD-like reaction.  So, there is at least some evidence to suggest that our forebears used to unwittingly drug themselves to make it through this cold, dark month.

I'm not advocating eating ergot or taking drugs, but there is something about February that makes me want to curl up under a fleece quilt with a box of snack cakes and just cry until March.  That is just one reason why it is so important that I find meals that are very nutrient-dense to help us stave off the cold and depression that can plague all of us in winter.

What you see before you is whipped butternut squash with local, raw honey and applewood-smoked bacon, and dill-encrusted wild-caught cod.  It was pretty easy to make, and it loads up on lots of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and other potentially-beneficial substances in food.

Whipped Butternut Squash with Honey and Bacon
3-4 small butternut squash (I'm down to the little guys from last year's harvest)
1 T. local, raw honey, or to taste
About 1 cup crispy fried applewood-smoked, uncured bacon bits

Place halved and seeded squash cut side down in a pan of water and bake in 350 degree oven until flesh is soft, about 30-45 minutes.  Meanwhile, chop bacon into bits (choosing uncured will allow you to avoid nitrates) and fry until crisp.  Drain bacon and pat to remove excess fat.

Scoop flesh from butternut squash and whip with immersion blender.  Add about 1T local, raw honey and whip again.  Top with bacon.

Dill-Encrusted Cod
2 large wild-caught cod fillets
About 1T. dill (mine is from the garden)
Fresh-ground salt and pepper to taste
About 2T. local, organic butter

Place cod fillets in a baking dish with butter, dill, salt, and pepper.  Be sure to cover the fillets evenly with the dill.  Bake at 350 while your squash cooks and you do the final preparation of the squash, about 30 minutes, or until done.  Because of all the butter, it will stay moist and nice if you leave it in the oven to stay warm while you do your final squash prep.

The Analysis

Fast:  I'd say this meal took about an hour and 15 minutes to prepare, but there was a bit of downtime in the middle there while things baked that I used to clean up the kitchen, etc.

Cheap:  Well, cheap wasn't really the point here.  I saved some money by growing my own squash and dill, but I spend up on the local, raw honey and local, organic butter, and I splurged on the whole fillets instead of my usual trick of buying the "pieces" package of cod that is usually better-suited for frying.  You can play with your costs by making different choices, although you want to stick with really good, healthy ingredients to boost that nutrient load.

Good:  Although it didn't make February pass any faster, this recipe was a definite bright spot in our day, and much better than a dose of ergot and a good cry.

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