Thursday, January 31, 2013

How to Make Simple Syrup

So, last week I was in a bar (and you don't know how long I've waited to start a sustainable living post that way...), and I asked the bartender for a mojito.  The establishment is new, and they are still stocking up, and the bartender allowed as how she had no simple syrup and would have to "get some."

Friends, one does not buy simple syrup.  You know why?  Because this listing from Amazon shows you why:

Amazon's first listing for "simple syrup"

Take a gander.  You will pay $31.13 plus shipping for four bottles of simple syrup, each just over a quart.

If I ever catch any of you spending $32 to buy a gallon of simple syrup, I am coming to your house and not leaving until you are rebatching your soap, making your own laundry detergent, and starting a compost pile.

For those of you planning to make cocktails for your Super Bowl party, you need to know this:  Simple syrup is simple.  It is equal parts sugar and water.  Just take your granulated cane sugar (I usually use a cup) and put it in a small sauce pan with an equal amount (a cup) of water.  Heat on low until the sugar dissolves, and then pop it in the fridge.  Bingo.  You have enough simple syrup to get you through a few cocktails or a pitcher of mojitos, for pennies.

I mean, I get it:  sometimes you buy stuff to stock your bar.  If you never make your own aromatic bitters (which you totally can, but since you use two drops of the stuff at at time, a store-bought bottle should last a decade anyway), you will still have your sustainability merit badge from me.  But you use simple syrup by the shot and jigger-full, and there is no reason to waste money on something you can make while you are slicing your limes.

The Analysis

Fast:  Literally, simple syrup takes 2 minutes to make.

Cheap:  Pennies, I tell you.  What does a bag of sugar even cost these days?  A couple of bucks for 4 pounds of cane sugar, and that would make a few gallons of simple syrup.  Never pay $32 a gallon!!

Good:  Saving your money for the expensive rum is always a better deal when stocking the bar.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rebatching Soap

When I was a child, my very first money-saving project was rebatching soap.  For some reason, I became obsessed with the fact that we buy soap, but then we throw a sliver away at the end of each bar.  And while I had absolutely no problem returning a plate of half-eaten food to be thrown away after dinner, the idea of throwing away soap bothered me.

It still does.  And while I don't make my own soap, I confess to having an old quart Mason jar in our supply cabinet in the bathroom where soap chips go to live when they are too small to use.  Once the jar is full, the rebatching can begin!

First, you will want to save soap chips that are fairly small, about the size of the sliver that starts to get annoying to use.  If you save big chunks, you will have trouble with this first step, although it isn't out of the question for you to grate those big chunks and hotel bars with a hand grater.  But your first step is dumping all the soap (bit by bit) in your food processor and processing it until it is powdery.  You will have some small chips left, but that is OK.  Be sure to keep the lid on your food processor until the dust settles, because soap dust in the nose makes you sneeze like crazy!  (I promise your food processor will clean up just fine with a trip or two through the dishwasher -- it is just soap, after all.)

If you don't fancy the idea of making new soap bars, you can stop here and use this powder as the first step in making homemade laundry soap.  But I wanted new bars of soap, so I proceed.

Next, put your soap powder in a microwaveable bowl and cover just barely with water; you are going to melt the soap, but you don't want it to take forever to dry.  Microwave it in minute-long bursts until you can see the majority of the powder has melted, which took me about 3-5 minutes total.

Finally, spread in a container of your choice.  I plopped mine in an old cocoa container, which is why my finished soap has a little cocoa on it.  (I didn't clean the container as well as I should have.)  Spread it out, and let it dry in a cool room until solid -- I stuck mine in the sunroom.  Then, remove it from the container (this is where having a container with flexible sides and no lip helps), and allow it to further cure and dry until hard.  Slice into bars, and you have recaptured the lost soap that you wasted over the course of time.  For me, I got five "travel sized" bars out of the soap I've been saving for just over a year.

The Analysis

Fast:  OK, not particularly.  But not too bad; the project probably took me an hour total, plus drying time.

Cheap:  If I had been forgoing paying work for my writing clients or my Carrot Creations yoga sock clients to do this, it might not have been a good deal.  But I used free time, and I probably recouped a couple of bucks in soap costs.

Good:  This is definitely a "because I can" kind of project, but I do enjoy the idea of saving my "lost" soap.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

New Facebook Group for Carrot Creations

Certainly, many of you have already seen this announcement, but since I do have some blog readers who come here as a result of Carrot Creations, my Etsy store, I wanted to invite everyone to like the new Carrot Creations Facebook page linked here.  The page for Hilltop Communications, which covers my writing, speaking, and consulting endeavors -- including notices of new posts on this blog -- remains active as well, so please join us on both pages if you are so inclined!

And now, back to your regularly-scheduled sustainability topics; I've got some great ideas coming up for you this week!
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Better Feverfew Delivery Method

About two and a half years ago, I wrote about how much I love feverfew.  At the time, after many years of reading about this herb and its effects on headaches and migraines, I was embarking on an experiment to use feverfew to curb my own problem headaches.

The experiment paid off.  Any time I consistently was able to consumer a leaf or two of feverfew a day, I saw a dramatic decrease in headaches, with the intensity lessening and the frequency dropping from an average of about one a day to one a week.

However, as with many great things, there was a problem:  feverfew leaves do nasty things to your mouth after a while.  Some of the known side effects include irritations of the mouth and deadening of the taste buds, and I experienced these.  It became very difficult to want to take the feverfew, even when the positive impact was so dramatic. Swallowing the leaves whole seemed to decrease the effectiveness.

I dried some feverfew, but man, is that stuff seriously gross to try to swallow on its own!  I stopped taking feverfew, especially in winter, and my headaches came back.  For the past six months, I've been hearing radio commercials about "frequent headache" being defined as 15 or more headaches a month, and I've had a few fantasies about how awesome it must be to have only 15 headaches a month.  That's how bad it was there for a while.

So, Mr. FC&G and I went to the local ultra-expensive organic foodie store, and we found vegetarian gelatin capsules, ready for filling.  I am experimenting -- currently I'm using a size 00, I believe -- and I am filling it with dried feverfew.  Once again, my headaches are diminishing and becoming further apart, and it appears I am experiencing the benefits sooner than expected when eating the leaves fresh, probably because I'm consuming more feverfew dried in these capsule.  Best of all, no more sore mouth and dead taste buds.

I'll keep you posted on the continued results.  But so far, I'm a big fan of encapsulating herbs and spices that may be beneficial to your health yet unpalatable to eat in quantity.  I have some ideas for future capsules, but I'd like to hear your experiences.  Leave them in the comments below!
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Friday, January 18, 2013

Saving Time and Money by Shipping from Home

Here's a quick money- and time-saving tip for your Friday:  if you have packages to ship, buy the postage online and save.

Many of you probably already know that taking care of some of the tasks that used to be done by postal employees means a savings for you.  If not, I urge you to check out the self-shipping options that the U.S. postal service has, at  Simply click on "ship a package," and the site will walk you through the process of buying postage and printing a label, which you can do on plain printer paper.  Just attach the label with shipping tape, and place the item in your mailbox for pickup.

Hell can now freeze over, because I'm about to say something nice about the government:  this system absolutely rocks.  The system wisely takes advantage of the fact that, these days, almost everyone has a credit card and a printer to buy and print their postage.  It is a rare, wise step on the part of the government that demonstrates that not everything needs to be done at a higher level or by an "official."  Sometimes, it is cheaper for everyone to let people do things for themselves.

I use this to ship the occasional item to clients or presents to relatives out of town.  It is so much quicker than going to the post office and standing in line like we used to, and it is even better than using the self-serve kiosk at the post office.  You do need a scale that will allow you to mail your package, but I have been using my vegetable scale with no problems.

For my most recent shipping task, I sent a 10 oz. box for $5.14, which saved me 21 cents over going to the post office.  That's a 3.9% cost saving and a saving of about a half an hour of standing in line, based on my local P.O.  It also saves me the gas for 3 miles of commute, although this isn't a factor in the warmer weather when I bike.

The Analysis
Fast:  The big benefit of this service is time saved.  I'll print shipping labels from the comfort of my home any day rather than bundle up and head out to stand in line.

Cheap:  As you might imagine, I won't turn down a 3.9% savings either, even if it is only 21 cents.

Good:  Getting more done more easily in your day is a sustainable plan!

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How Much Does a Garden Grow: 2012 Final

Like my sage buried under a snow drift, the gardening year ended in hibernation.  Final totals:

2012 Tally--Final
158.0625 lbs. total harvested
$466.17 value of harvest for 2012
$196.65 expenditures for 2012
$269.52 profit 

As you can see, there were no harvests and no expenditures in December.  The leeks are still growing in the cold frame outside, and the potatoes seem to be fine in their pot in the sun room, but everything has settled down for its winter's nap.

Lessons learned from this year of gardening?

This spreadsheet has got to go!  Somehow, when I set up the tracking spreadsheet last January, I got distracted by the fact that most things in the grocery are priced per pound, and I based my calculation on pounds.  My harvests, however, usually were in ounces -- 9 ounces of tomatoes, 12 ounces of carrots, an ounce of greens -- which means that I had to convert everything into decimal to work with prices per pound in my spreadsheet.  No more.  This year, I convert grocery prices to price per ounce, and that will be in sync with my harvests.

Second, I will be adding a column for each vegetable type and variety I want to track separately, so I have a running total of which tomato is producing best in July and which vegetable produces the biggest  total harvest.  Look for better reporting next year.

It was a good year for squash.  Zucchini and butternut squash were the big performers this year, which meant that we ate zucchini almost every day for about two months and still have plenty in the freezer.  Right now, squash is performing well on our property, and we like it, so I plan to grow more next year.

I made bad cucumber choices:  For as long as I can remember, I've grown Burpee Picklers and Straight Eights.  Every year.  I don't know what possessed me this year to try heirloom varieties of cucumber, but even when they produced well, they didn't throw off the kind of bounty that often has me and my extended family eating bread and butter pickles all year.  Next year, back to the old favorites.

I made some questionable tomato choices:  Tomatoes are the centerpiece of the garden, but 2011 was so bad for tomatoes that I actually was in tears a few times.  In an effort to combat this, I tried to grow a whole new range of tomatoes.  Some -- like Super Sioux -- produced very well, while cold tolerant varieties like Ukrainian Purple had trouble in the heat.  This coming year, I am only growing a couple of varieties from seed and investing in plants for the rest, because the commercially-grown plants seem to perform better for me.  Of course, I will also be keeping an eye out for volunteers to move into the garden in the sunniest spots, because year after year, volunteers are the best performers I ever have, due to their adaptation to our microclimate.

Gardening is worth it.  Every year, I see people try to justify by cost savings the effort involved in gardening.  In some ways, that's what this column is about.  But even if I saved only $270 this year, it was certainly money we could use.  And, I can't begin to quantify the benefits of the exercise, sunshine, better produce, and general mental health benefits of getting my toes in the dirt.  I'm looking forward to placing my seed order for 2013 this week and starting the process all over again!
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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sustainable Pin: Chewy Chip Cookies

I have this problem with my chocolate chip cookies "spreading."  In part, I think this is because using organic butter instead of margarine is just one more ingredient that can melt for too long before it solidifies as it is cooking, but that is a hunch, not a scientific analysis.  In any case, I'm tired of flat cookies.

Enter today's sustainable pin from Apple a Day, Best-Ever Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Go ahead and click on over and grab this recipe for your own pinboard, because you are going to want to give it a try.

I used organic butter and peanut butter chips in my batch, but otherwise the cookies baked up exactly as advertised -- soft, puffy, and chewy.  I might leave out the salt next time because I usually have salted butter around the house, and I think I perceive just a hint of salt in the final recipe, but not enough to be unpleasant.  I'm sure that doubling up by using the salted butter is the culprit.

I'm very pleased with this recipe, and I'm super happy that the original author shared it.  Baking is one of those sustainable activities that I do whenever I have time, because it allows me greater control over ingredients and portion size.  This recipe may well have solved my flat cookie problem!
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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Butternut Squash Soup

We have had a couple of really good years for butternut squash.  If I grow a half a row of these easy-to-store veggies, I usually get ten pounds or more of fruit to store downstairs, which is plenty to get us through the winter.  Plus, I love that the seeds are so easy to extract and save; this past year, I grew all of our butternut squash from saved seeds, which meant that the entire harvest was free!

Of course, that means we have to eat the squash, and my new favorite recipe is butternut squash soup.  It is pretty easy for this recipe to be entirely local even in winter, since it is primarily made of storage veggies, stock, and herbs.  Or, if you are like me, you can do a combo of store-bought and homegrown veggies.  

The base soup is very mild, so you can alter the herbs to your own taste.  I tried to pick some flavors that would give it a warm kick, which seemed just right in winter.

Butternut Squash Soup
1 T. butter
1 small/medium onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
4 small Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
1 medium or 2 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 quart stock (I used homemade chicken stock)
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
marjoram (about 1 T. dried leaves, crushed to 1 t.)
curry powder, about 1/2 to 1 t., to taste

Melt butter in large stock pot and cook onions and garlic until wilted and clear.  Add remaining vegetables and stock, and cook until veggies are soft, about 30-40 minutes.  Add herbs and spices and cook about 5 minutes more.  Puree until smooth with immersion blender.

Makes 2 large servings.

The Analysis
Fast:  This soup takes about an hour of active cooking and prep, what with all of the chopping and blending, but it is totally worth it.

Cheap:  If you still have a cellar full of veggies and stock, you might be able to make this totally from your stores.  Otherwise, feel free to shop for the veggies you need.  I bought the carrots, potatoes, and onions.

Good:  We had no leftovers from this batch, so that tells you how much we enjoyed it.  It would be easy to make this recipe entirely vegetarian if you use vegetable stock, or vegan if you also omit the butter (use a smidge of olive oil to cook your onions).

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sauce from Frozen Tomatoes

The best thing about growing tomatoes is making sauce and juice, filling the kitchen with the warm smells of tomato-y goodness.  The worst thing, probably, is that in a good tomato year, you are likely to be cooking and canning several quarts of tomato sauce in August, just when you least want to be warming up the kitchen.

Several friends recommended that I try freezing my sauce tomatoes and cooking them in winter, and this year I tried it.  Even though most paste tomato varieties (which make the best sauce) are determinate, meaning that they are bred to fruit all at once, I still find that there is a spread of a few weeks over which the Amish Paste, Ukrainian Purple, and Ox Heart tomatoes will ripen.  As it was such a miserable tomato year for me (although not as bad as 2011), I would find myself with a couple of ripe paste tomatoes at a time, but rarely enough for a batch of sauce.

So I took everyone's advice.  I washed the paste tomatoes as they ripened, then cut off the stem end and any blemishes, and put them straight into a freezer bag.  There they sat, accumulating little tomato buddies slowly, until the end of the season.

Over Christmas, I finally pulled them out and used them to make a small batch of sauce.  They performed wonderfully.  Because the freezing softens the tomatoes a bit (due to breaking down cell walls), they cooked up more quickly, and it was easier to extract the "meat" of the tomato with my ricer.  The resulting sauce was yummy, with no noticeable difference between this batch and the fresh-cooked batch I made over the summer.  I'm officially a convert; I will be freezing my paste tomatoes for cooler weather processing from now on!

The Analysis
Fast:  This batch of sauce arguably cooked up faster than it would have with fresh tomatoes over the summer.  But the big difference is moving the hot cooking process into a month it does me some good.

Cheap:  One could make an argument that the tomatoes required energy to be frozen until processing, compared with sitting in their jars as sauce over that period.  However, the freezer is running anyway, and I'm sure any additional energy it took to cool the tomatoes down was much less than the energy it takes to run the AC non-stop during one of those hot August nights of sauce-canning.  The only downfall is a bit of risk -- if a major power outage had occurred, I would have potentially lost the tomatoes if they had not yet been turned into sauce.  However, I note that I'm not above cooking a batch of sauce on the cookstove or the backyard grill if I have to.

Good:  Equal quality to those processed in summer!
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