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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