Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas from Fast, Cheap, and Good!

It's Christmas Eve as I write this.  The presents have been purchased and wrapped, the cards have been sent, and I am enjoying my annual Christmas Eve tradition of enjoying a cup of Bailey's and coffee while I write.  For a few moments, the world seems peaceful.

And so I'd like to take this quiet moment to wish all my FC&G readers a very Merry Christmas and happy holiday season.

This blog will resume publication the week of January 3.  And keep an eye out -- my first New Year's resolution is the publication of a Fast, Cheap, and Good book, filled with your favorite tips and projects, updated and expanded.  Stay tuned!

My best and my thanks to all of you for another fabulous year.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: Hilltop Communications Adds Publishing Imprint

Time for a bit of shameless self-promotion!

My company, Hilltop Communications, has just become a publishing imprint in addition to my writing, speaking, and consulting endeavors!

My first book is Lecture is Not Dead: Ten Tips for Delivering Dynamic Lectures in the College Classroom.  In this short book, I identify ten ways to make your college lecture or professional speech more dynamic and engaging to your audience.  I also include three habits to avoid and a number of discussion questions, making this ideal for faculty development seminars and training programs.

The official Amazon description:

"The lecture as a teaching tool has worked for centuries because, at heart, it is about human interaction, the most powerful, attention-grabbing tool for interaction at anyone’s disposal. The presence of a live, active, engaged human being who is an expert in his or her field will do more to ignite the passions of a group of students than will any canned multimedia presentation. This book will show you how to infuse passion and interest into your lectures and keep your students awake and engaged."

You can purchase the book here, or you can contact me directly for volume purchases or to arrange remote or in-person training based on this book.

Thank you for taking the time to read!  I now take you back to your regularly-scheduled frugality and sustainability!

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Growing Ginger

Herbs and spices are some of the most expensive things you can buy at the grocery, especially if you want organic.  And the price is definitely impacted by distribution costs; I nearly fainted in the grocery store in Key West when I had to pay $9 for a jar of organic bay leaves.

Fresh ginger is another of these expensive items.  It is fairly reasonable here in Ohio, but at the southernmost tip of the United States, it is quite expensive.  This makes it a great option to grow.

To grow fresh ginger, simply take a nub of your existing ginger "hand."  You will know if it is viable if it is starting to sprout while on your counter, like that little bit with the green tip in the bottom center of the photo.  Take a nub about two inches long, so you have some root to start with.

Plant the ginger in a deep pot under a shallow layer of dirt, and keep heaping dirt in as the plant sprouts, kind of like you do with potatoes.  When the pot is full, just let the lovely foliage grow and the rhizome under the soil make more ginger for you.  Since the plant looks fairly tropical, it makes a nice addition to your window sill.

Ginger takes a long time to grow.  What you see in the photo is eight months' worth of ginger growth across several pots; I planted in April and just harvested last week.  But, since ginger is a container plant, it isn't taking up any garden space or obeying the seasons.

Ginger seems to like a fairly warm climate, so put it in a warm window or outside during summer.  Water regularly, and you will have fresh ginger on occasion that you don't have to buy.

The Analysis

Fast:  Not at all.  Ginger is terribly slow-growing, so it is an exercise in patience.

Cheap:  I harvested three ounces of ginger from my pots; not a lot, but certainly enough for a batch of homemade ginger ale!

Good:  Organic, home grown, and free.  My kind of project.
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Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: November 2014

Ah, winter.  I just had a conversation with a good friend yesterday about how the garden is now asleep, doing its job of preparing itself for the next growing season.

It doesn't mean I'm not sad to have a diminished harvest for a few months.

November brought us the last of the tomatoes and peppers, both carefully sheltered in the sunroom until they gave their last fruits.  One volunteer tomato and the Red Pear tomatoes were the last to still be productive.

We also had a handful of kale and carrots come in.  The kale is finally finished, but this was actually my spring planting; it lasted all summer long.  I will have to start some more very soon.

So, we are down to just some garlic and ginger growing in pots.  I really need to make time to see what other winter crops I can start in the sunroom, but in the meantime, our tallies stand as follows:

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,566.5
Pounds: 160/4063

Total Value of Harvest: $621.79
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $335.66
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Being Sustainable When Things Are Going Well

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my U.S. readers, and happy Thursday to all the rest!

I am grateful for many things this year, including health and happiness for my family and for the love that surrounds us all.  That's paramount.

But I also am grateful that, for the first time since the Great Recession began, both Mr. FC&G and I are having a good business year.  We've spent quite a few years juggling a lot of balls -- one up, the other down, in a big circle -- and we're profoundly grateful that things are smooth right now.  We're also working hard and knocking on a lot of wood that it all continues -- and you know what I mean if you are a business owner too.

Writing in the sustainable living space, I know that nothing sparks interest in these types of ideas like an economic downturn.  Sustainability overlaps nicely with frugality, and people often turn to blogs like mine for ways to save money when work is a little light.

But what do you do when things are going well?

I'll admit, I've had some days recently when I wanted to hire a housekeeper, pick up take-out instead of cooking, and forget both the recycling and the gardening.  I'm just occasionally that busy.  But I don't want to abandon my basic beliefs in managing resources responsibly.  So, in case you are in a similar position, here are some of my techniques for practicing sustainability when you are happily busy:

1.  Make it count
I still make our laundry soap.  Yes, making a big batch takes about 20 minutes, what with grating the soap (and Mr. FC&G tends to do that), but the batch lasts about six months and saves us quite a bit on laundry detergent costs, to say nothing of keeping plastic bottles out of the landfill and reducing transportation costs.  It's a good project to prioritize, no matter how busy we are.

On the other hand, I haven't rebatched soap slivers to make new bars in over a year.  The savings is comparatively little, and the project yields fairly little soap.  That project can wait.

2.  Save time for the time-savers
No matter how busy the week is going to be, we still save one weekend day to cook a fairly big meal with as many of the trimmings as we can make.  Not only does a home cooked meal save us money and allow us to eat more locally, it throws off leftovers that can often get us through several days during the week.  That makes it less likely that we will succumb to a restaurant meal, even when things are feeling financially healthy enough that that isn't a worrisome hit to the budget.

3.  Spend responsibly
If you have a little extra money and feel like you can spend on some luxuries, spend responsibly.  Buy from local, small businesses.  Look for organic, cruelty-free, and fair trade products.  Patronize businesses that you want to see around for years to come.  They will thank you, and they may even return the favor!
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Ways to be Sustainable for the Holidays

Somehow or other, the holidays are creeping up on us already.  I don't feel particularly prepared.  I haven't even finished with my garden -- I still have a potted Red Pear tomato that keeps setting and ripening fruit out in the sunroom, and I keep believing it's still summer.

Well, until I try to get the mail in a pair of flip-flops and wind up courting frost bite.

Sustainable and frugal living columns are always a bit difficult to write around the holidays, because there's the temptation to head straight into "no one needs all that stuff" territory.

But this is not a minimalism blog (as anyone who has ever seen our basement can attest).  For me, how much "stuff" you need to celebrate the holiday of your choice is entirely up to you.  I just want you to be able to do so comfortably and with your own sustainability desires met.

So, my top five ideas for how to celebrate sustainably:

1.  Set spending limits.
Whether this has been a great year financially or you are feeling a little strapped, start now by making a budget and dividing the money you currently have on hand for the holidays among your gift recipients in a way you feel is fair.  Maybe that means that you spend the majority of your funds on your spouse and/or children and limit your participation in gift exchanges for a group.  Maybe it means you have the ability to buy something for everyone.  Just make your plan and then stick with it.

2.  Be generous with your goodwill.
Regardless of what holiday you celebrate or how much or little you have to spend, this is the time of year to tell as many people as possible what they mean to you.  One good idea is sending a New Years card instead of a Christmas/holiday one, and to take the time to write a special note to each recipient.  Yes, that's a lot of work, but your good wishes will come right when the celebrations die down and people need to know what they mean to you.

3.  Give gifts that match the recipient made with values that match yours.
It is oh-so-tempting to make that contribution to your own favorite charity in place of giving a gift.  But, if your recipient does not share your particular views (and it's harder to be sure than you think), you are just putting the person on a mailing list they don't want to be on and annoying them for the next twelve month.  Instead, match the gift to the recipient, but try to make sure the gift's production matches your values.  For example, I recently interviewed a local shop owner who sells chocolate that is manufactured without any labor that can be traced to human trafficking, not an easy thing to avoid with that kind of agriculture.  What a great gift that would be for my fellow chocolate lovers!

4.  Shop local.
One of the most sustainable things you can do is patronize local businesses, especially locally-owned ones.  You will cut down on transportation and overhead costs while helping a small businessperson and making sure money stays in your own community.  If you don't choose to shop local; shop local somewhere else -- pick your favorite vacation spot or hometown, and funnel some money into those businesses.  We occasionally order things from Key West businesses just because we want to see those same storefronts open when we next visit.

How do you make your holidays sustainable?  
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Best of FC&G: The Fleece Patchwork Un-Quilt

In another update of a popular post, I wanted to update you on the fleece patchwork un-quilt.

I have wanted to quilt for years, but I will admit that I just don't have the patience.  I will never really be able to stand to do intricate piecing, use batting, and sew everything so exactly.  But I definitely want quilts of my own making.

Enter the un-quilt.  Constructed just like a fleece pillowcase with a patched top, this is one of the warmest and easiest blankets you will ever make.

I have made two quilts for our house and one for my parents, and they are all holding up fine.  Our quilts have been in use for about four years, and they have been used and used.  We use them for naps year round, on the bed in winter, and even on vacation. Our quilts have been to my college reunion to decorate our borrowed dorm room, to Key West when we stayed for a couple of weeks, and even outside for a picnic.  They are still looking great and keeping us cozy.

Classic Post:
For this project, all you need are remnants in fleece patterns and colors you like, plus a cut of fleece for backing.  Follow these simple steps:

1.  Cut the patchwork fleece into squares.  I use a 4.5 inch square quilting template because I like the look of random patches of regularly-cut fabric.  But feel free to get more complex or to try patterns like 9-patch squares (my next attempt).  Just remember that the more complex your patchwork, the more time it takes.

2.  Sew your squares together.  For me, I sew 14 squares to get the width; this is about five feet in width.  I like this width for a fleece quilt because bolts of fleece come in 58-60 inch widths, so this will fit the backing without piecing two cuts of fleece together to make the back.  That is difficult and unwieldy.  Five feet wide also allows me to put the quilt on my side of the (king) bed without disturbing over-heated hubby.

3.  Sew your width strips together to make about six feet in length.  Again, six feet is two yards of fleece, which is an inexpensive backing.  Alternately, you could patch the back as well, but that would be more work. 

4.  For this quilt, I bought a piece of bluish grey fleece for the back that was two yards long and about 60 inches wide.  It cost (after sale and coupons) about $14.  Place the backing and the topper with right sides together and machine sew on three sides, like you are making a pillow case.  For the fourth side (which would be open on a pillow case, turn the edges in and sew both sides together.  You can do this on your machine (remember, that is four thicknesses of fabric, so you may want to change to a heavier needle) or by blind stitch (which I'm going to do on my next quilt).

Voila!  A soft, warm "quilt" that really relies on the warmth of air sandwiched in two layers of fleece instead of the normal cotton and batting sandwich.  If you are crafty, you could easily sew one of these up as a Christmas gift (a lap quilt also would be nice and take even less time), or you could start one to keep your own toes toasty in the bitter months to come. 

The Analysis

Fast:  In quilt-time, this one comes together in a jiffy.  Cut squares while you are watching TV at night, and then sew together in a few bursts of sewing.  I like to work on one of these while I'm writing, because it gives me a chance to turn away from the computer and think for a few minutes while I assemble a few squares.

Cheap:  I put my first fleece quilt together for the cost of $14 for two yards of backing fleece, plus whatever I spent on remnants.  With the remnant bin full (as it is right now with everyone using fleece to make gifts), you should be able to bring this project in under $30 with some smart shopping.

Good:  The fleece quilt is one of the (very) few things I actually like about winter.  It is so soft and warm, it follows me everywhere:  downstairs onto the couch during the day, and upstairs onto the bed at night.  I can't wait to finish another.
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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October 2014

I have been waiting and waiting to tally up the tomato totals, and I almost needed to wait longer than I have, because I still have tomatoes growing in the sunroom. But in the interest of planning next year's garden, here's how the tomatoes shook out this year now that the lion's share of the harvest is in:

Cuor di Bue (1): 187 ounces/$52.36
Box Car Willie (1):  153 ounces/$42.84
San Marzano (1): 195 ounces/$54.60
Super Sauce (6): 83 ounces/$23.24
Black Krim (3): 70 ounces/$19.60
Steakhouse (3): 201 ounces/$56.28
Amish Paste (3): 37 ounces/$10.36
Red Pear (6?): 78 ounces/$21.84
Volunteer (10?): 127 ounces/$35.56

The top three tomatoes listed above were single plants given to me by my best friend from college, who currently lives in Tennessee.  Those single plants out-performed all the other varieties, except for the Burpee Steakhouse.  However, it's important to note that I needed three Steakhouse to beat even one of these plants.  So, clearly, I need to have her start my tomatoes every year.

The remaining varieties were ordered as plants, with the exception of the Red Pear and the volunteer tomatoes.  The Red Pear were grown from seed, which is the reason I don't know how many plants I had -- sometimes, I'd plant two plants in a hill because that's the way they were in the starter pot.  Nonetheless, I was very pleased with these little, grape-sized salsa tomatoes.

The volunteers were also a success in my book.  Yes, I had a lot of them, because I pretty much try to keep every decent-sized volunteer I have room for, but I will take a harvest of $35 of free tomatoes any day.  Some of these were absolutely delicious, too, so I saved the seed in hopes of starting to get a line of plants that works in my microclimate.

Otherwise, the October harvest brought in just over nine pound of produce, but it was valuable stuff -- largely tomatoes and kale.  Our totals at the end of the month are respectable:

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,556.5
Pounds: 159.78125

Total Value of Harvest: $615.75
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $329.62

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Best of FC&G: Update on Ersatz Cotton Balls

I've been going through the "classic" FC&G posts with the idea of releasing some of the best in book form, and I realize that many of our current readers may have joined us mid-conversation and not had time to read all the back posts they might like.  Therefore, I'm going to occasionally release a "best of" post that updates an older column.

Today, we have what I call "ersatz cotton ball," or make-up removers.  I was very proud of this project back in January 2010 when I came up with the idea.  I'm even prouder of it now, at the end of 2014.  Many of the fleece make-up removers that I made over four years ago are still white and still in service.  I've cut a few extra from time to time as I get a scrap of fleece that is suited for nothing else, and I've thrown a few away that were indelibly stained.  But overall, most of my stash is still in service.

Best of all, I've purchased about one bag of cotton balls a year for the past five years, instead of four or five per year without the wipes.  You can see the original post for the original math; things have only gotten more expensive since then, so the savings is even greater.

Have you tried this idea?

Original Post
Hi, my name is Jennifer, and I have a fleece addiction.

Let me back up a bit.  In previous posts, I talked about finding sustainable replacements for the kind of disposable items that are so annoying to pay for.  For me, one of these is cotton balls.

I know, I know.  They aren't that expensive.  But cotton balls are one of those inherently disposable items that slowly leach money from your wallet while they add to the landfill.  So, since I use cotton balls primarily as makeup removers, enter the ersatz cotton ball.

This requires another slight digression:  I love the remnant fabric bin at my local fabric store, and winter is the time that this bin is filled with fleece.  After everyone spent Christmas making homemade Snuggies, that bin is full of mis-cuts, unwanted yardage, and the ends of bolts.  So, if you aren't ultra-picky about the patterns you buy (and make no mistake, there are some cute ones and some wonderful solids in there), you can usually pick up fleece remnants ranging up to a yard and a half in length, all for 50 to 70 percent off.

I have been raiding the remnant bin for months to find pieces with which to make fleece socks, so I happened to have some white fleece ends left over, but any color would do.  Simply cut your fleece remnant into 2"x2" squares, and there you have it -- make up remover pads, otherwise known as ersatz cotton balls.  Fleece doesn't fray, so you don't have to worry about hemming, which makes this a fine no-sew project.

 Yep, it's that easy!

I hang a mesh laundry bag on the back of the bathroom door, and when I have a reasonable bag full of dirties, I toss them in the white load.  I don't up the amount of detergent I use, and the weight of these is so negligible that I don't think my machine is adding more than a few cents extra water.  In the summer, I'll be hanging that mesh bag out on the clothes line to dry, so they will dry for free.  Best of all, I can use these again and again.

The Analysis

Fast:  I think it took me 10 minutes to make a jar full of ersatz cotton balls, enough to last me a while.  On a busy grocery day, it could take me that long to slog my way down the make-up aisle to get cotton balls.

Cheap:  I raided my own fleece stash and used pieces too small for anything else, but assuming you buy light-colored fleece for this project, you should be able to make all you need for about a quarter of a yard.  If you get your yardage from the remnant bin, you should not be spending more than 50 to 75 cents.

The closest analog to these is disposable make-up remover pads, which Rite-Aid has for $1.69 for 80; jumbo cotton balls should come in for about the same price for 100.  Assuming four to five purchases of each over the course of a year, you will spend $8.45 on your makeup remover pads if you buy the disposable, compared to about 75 cents for the reusable kind.  That leave $7.70 of pure savings, plus the warm fuzzy of knowing you didn't contribute these bits to the landfill.

Good:  I would say these are just as soft or softer than cotton balls, and they remove makeup just as well
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quick Singapore Noodles

Recently, I had the pleasure of having Singapore noodles at a local Thai restaurant.  This dish was right up my alley, being rice noodles and veggies in a yellow curry sauce, so I knew I had to try to replicate it.

It was also a great chance to create a low-cost, vegetarian dinner that comes together quickly, thanks to the purchase of just one packaged item. In this recipe, I used whole wheat spaghetti in place of the rice noodles, and I used Trader Joe's yellow curry sauce, along with fresh garden veggies.

Quick Singapore Noodles
Whole wheat spaghetti -- enough for four portions, boiled
1 bottle Trader Joe's yellow curry sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
4-8 ounces of carrots, cubed
1 large handful kale, roughly chopped
1 T. olive oil

In large sautee pan, cook chopped onions in olive oil until translucent and carrots until soft.  Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti.

When onions and carrots are cooked to taste, add noodles, curry sauce, and kale.  Cook until kale is wilted and sauce is hot.

Serves 4

The Analysis
Fast:  This took about 30 minutes from the time I hit the garden to pull the carrots until I put the dish on the table

Cheap:  Very inexpensive.  The most expensive element is the prepared curry sauce, and that cost is spread over four servings.

Good:  This was a pretty close copy of the Thai restaurant version.  I liked the dish better with whole wheat noodles than with the rice noodles, but obviously you can play with using any noodle you like.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Saving Bean Seeds

This year, we had a bumper crop of pole beans that I grew on a tepee-like structure on the edge of the garden.  I was not very organized about letting some of the bean pods mature to save seeds, but when I went to cut down the vines, I was pleased to see many pods near the base that I had missed, leaving me with lots of seed for next year.

Saving bean seeds is one of the easiest ways to start saving seed for your next garden, thus preserving heirloom lines and saving you money.  For beans like this (either pole beans or bush varieties), simply wait until the seeds are mature inside the pod.  You can tell because you will be able to both see and feel the bean seeds as "bumps" in the pod.  At this stage, some people call these beans "shellies" or "shell-outs."

Ideally, you harvest your shellies when the pod is dry, but I had to take a few handsful when they were still green and let them dry on the kitchen counter.  When they are dry, pop open the pods and pop out the seed.

Bonus tip:  When you cut down your bean vines, don't pull up the roots; cut the vines off at the soil line.  The roots of legumes like beans and peas fix nitrogen in the soil in little nodules on their roots.  Leaving the roots in the soil means richer soil next year.

The Analysis
Fast:  Just as fast as harvesting beans to eat!

Cheap:  Saving your own seed will save you the seed cost of your crop next year.

Good:  Saving seed also helps us preserve biodiversity of garden crops, as you will be continuing a line of heirloom seeds that slowly becomes adapted to your microclimate.
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: September 2014

As expected, September was a much slower garden month than was August.  With only $65 worth of produce harvested, it is starting to look like this year's garden will be of a smaller monetary value than last year.

However, I'm not disappointed, because the variety of produce has been much better.  As I've mentioned, last year's garden pretty much lived on the production of cucumbers and zucchini.  That was very helpful, but it didn't give quite the variety we might have wanted.  This year was much better. 

This year, we had much more in the way of tomatoes.  I plan an entire post about the tomatoes once they finish up, but as of now, these are the varieties that gave me 10 pounds (160 ounces) or more:
  • Cuor di Bue: 187 ounces from one plant
  • San Marzano: 191 ounces from one plant
  • Steakhouse: 158 ounces from three plants (very close!)
As I will detail in a future post, the best performers by far came from my good friend in Tennessee.  I now need to figure out whether it was the early start or the growing method while young that made the difference.  One thing is for sure:  I'm growing these varieties again.  Also, I'm definitely using Neptune's Harvest (an organic seaweed fertilizer) while they are young.

Also notable on the tomato front was the production from volunteer tomatoes.  Granted, I did have nearly a dozen volunteers in containers and in what I called "volunteer row," a semi-shaded garden row that I didn't have anything else planned for.  Nonetheless, I got 117 ounces of volunteer tomatoes to date, and they are still growing both outside and in containers in the sunroom.  

Other important crops this month were peppers, carrots, and potatoes.  Carrots and potatoes add very little value to our overall savings tally, but they are very important to us as far as nutrition.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,408.5
Pounds: 150.53125

Total Value of Harvest: $574.47
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $288.34
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Should You Grow Tomatoes in Grow Boxes?

This year, our good friends gave us some tomato boxes that they were no longer using.  (You can see the ones for sale here.)  I was excited about trying them, because tomato boxes seem to be a great way for gardeners with little space to grow full-size tomatoes, and I wanted to give it a try and report to my FC&G readers.

We got the boxes around the first of June, so we were a little late in planting in them.  Nonetheless, I put three cucumber vines that I thinned from the garden into one, and two volunteer tomatoes into the other.  For soil, I used sifted compost alone, with no soil amendments, because I was too late and too lazy to go get peat moss or any kind of soil lightener.  You can see what the boxes looked like by the middle of July in the photo.

First, the bad news.  My cucumbers didn't make it, and that didn't have anything to do with the boxes.  I got two or three cucumbers off the vines before they succumbed to a cucumber beetle attack that I fought over Fourth of July weekend.  The poor things didn't have a chance, although I think the limited amount of soil in the boxes also meant that there was nowhere for the roots to spread to help nourish the plant while it battled the invaders.

The tomatoes were a different story.  Although I only got maybe a half a dozen fruits off my two tomato plants, the vines were healthy and happy.  In fact, they are still setting fruit.  With a frost scheduled for this weekend, I will be considering whether I need to try to bring the boxes indoors or if the heat sink created by the house wall is enough to protect them from one cold night.

So, I'm going to go ahead and pronounce the grow boxes a moderate success, although I may update my analysis when I do a final tomato tally for the year.  I'll know more when I finally pull these vines and see what the roots look like, but I certainly plan to use the boxes for tomatoes again.  Who knows, once I get good at growing in boxes, maybe I'll be more ready for the day that we retire to the south!

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Friday, September 26, 2014

On Etsy and Buying Handmade

One of the ways to live sustainably is to buy local and handmade items when you choose to consume.  Knowing your producer and his or her production methods means that you know a bit more about materials used and how the items were produced.  That's why I've always been pleased to sell on Etsy, the online home for handmade items.

My shop, Carrot Creations, sells sustainable living products.  The best-sellers are our yoga socks, which feature a unique design and which allow you to practice your yoga and other barefoot exercise more comfortably in cold studios.

I've worked hard at my product line, and I think our customers appreciate it.  (Thank you!)  That's why I'm watching with interest the changes at Etsy.

As you can see from this article, Etsy has recently allowed businesses to use outside manufacturers for their goods.  In other words, a business can expand beyond the homemade realm and go into larger scale production.

On the one hand, I applaud this.  It's nice that Etsy has allowed small businesses to grow into medium-sized ones and still use the platform as their e-commerce site.  I think that's great.

But I'm concerned that, as the article suggests, this allows large-scale, overseas operations with exploitative working conditions to pass their goods off as something that belongs on Etsy -- that is, as something made with great care and individuality.  In the process, these large producers can swamp a small business.

So I'm waiting to see.  In the meantime, as the holidays approach, I ask this of you if you care about supporting small business:  ask questions.  Ask shop owners questions about where they are from and how they produce their items; a good shop owner loves getting questions through the conversation function.  And realize that a flood of items priced very cheaply probably means a production method that is less kind to workers.

All we ask is that our customers shop smart and shop according to their values.  Beyond that, I know I speak for many small shop owners when I say that I hope that competition sharpens us all rather than submerging us under a flood of poorly-made goods.
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Friday, September 19, 2014

Quick Garden Confetti Rice with Masala Meatballs

Last post, we talked about getting dinner on the table every night, even with a challenging schedule. Today, I wanted to share with you a meal we had this week that was easy to make and that illustrates that you don't have to make every single component of a meal by hand to still have a homecooked meal.

Quick Garden Confetti Rice with Masala Meatballs

1 lb. ground beef (I used organic, grass-fed)
1 lb. pork sausage (I used pastured pork)
1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
1 egg (I used pastured)
1 jar Indian masala sauce (mine was Patak's)

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl and shape into meatballs somewhat larger than a golf ball.  Top with masala sauce, cover with foil, and cook in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.  (Sometimes, these take 60 minutes for me if my meat isn't completely thawed.)

1 box Rice-a-Roni rice pilaf flavor
(You need about a handful chopped of each veggie.)

Meanwhile, with about 20 minutes til dinner, start cooking the boxed Rice-a-Roni.  Dice and add the veggies in this order:  carrots, then peppers, and then kale right before serving.  This allows the harder veggies to cook through without losing the integrity of the kale.

By using a boxed side dish mix and jarred sauce, meal prep was much quicker than if everything was made from scratch, but the main components of the meal -- meat, egg, and veggies -- came from sustainable sources (including my garden).  Plus, dinner was on the table in the time it took Mr. FC&G to drive home from work.  This recipe made about four complete servings, plus maybe an extra meatball or two.

The Analysis

Fast:  45-60 minutes is about as long as I'll spend cooking a weeknight dinner, so this fits in at the upper end.

Cheap:  The meat was about $10, and the sauce and Rice-a-Roni probably added about $3, plus some added expense for a bit of bread crumbs and a pastured egg.  Call it $14 for four servings, of about $3.50 per serving.  I don't think you could do a frozen meal or drive-through for much cheaper, and of course this is better for you.

Good:  This made a really complete meal, with fresh garden veggies and high quality protein from the sustainably-raised meat and egg.  It was also incredibly good, with the veggies and rice balancing out the heat from the masala sauce.  Plus, the leftovers meant that Mr. FC&G had something hot to eat even when he came home from work the next night at midnight.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Cook Dinner Every Night (Almost)

Over the past couple of weeks, the blogosphere has been a-blogging about the recent article in Slate that contends that making dinner every night places an undue burden on women, especially working mothers, and therefore might not be worth the trade-off.

My initial reaction to this piece was, "what trade-off?"  We all have to eat dinner, and, for most of us, neither our waistlines nor our overall health nor our wallets will allow us to eat out every night or subsist on wholly-prepared grocery foods (like heat-and-eat dinners).  So actually going into that big room with all the expensive appliances and rattling some pots and pans seems like a necessity, not an option.

But is it oppressive and an undue burden?  For one perspective, I invite you to visit my friend and colleague Natasha over at Dance Love Sing Live.  I can personally attest to the fact that Natasha can juggle multiple writing and editing jobs, homeschooling, a farm, and some food allergies and sensitivities, all without becoming oppressed.  The last time I saw her, she had spent the morning chasing a 1200 pound bull, and yet her hair was perfectly done and her lipstick was on.  I promise you want to follow along with her on her blog.

Anyway, Natasha can give you the working farm mom perspective, but I thought I'd share the suburban sustainability perspective.  For those of you just tuning in, Mr. FC&G and I are a family of two with four businesses, an active amateur ballroom dance schedule, and a large garden.  So here's how we get dinner on the table every night, along with most of our lunches and all of our breakfasts, without experiencing any oppression or unacceptable trade-offs.

Saturday and Sunday
These are our big cooking days, especially Sunday.  At least one day each weekend, we go all-out in making a big meal.  This might be a pot roast, a pork roast, a roast chicken, or a homemade lasagna.  In the summer, Mr. FC&G heads out to the fire pit and cooks a ton of burgers, fish, and kosher hot dogs.  Alongside all of these meats, we cook whatever veggies are in season: potatoes, whipped butternut squash, shredded zucchini and tomatoes, or the like.

Note that these are big meals, but they aren't all that complex.  One of the easiest things you can do is roast a bird or a cut of meat; you pretty much just put it in the roasting pan for a couple of hours and baste it once in a while.  Likewise, grilling out takes very little extra time to add some extra burgers or salmon fillets to the grill top once the fire is going.  But all of these "large" meals will throw off maybe two more dinners for each of us, along with a lunch or two for Mr. FC&G.

Weeknights are usually taken up with us trying to wrap up work and head off to dance or work out, so we rely on simple meals.  These might include:

  • Leftovers: the exact same meal we had on Sunday, reheated
  • Pollo saltado, made with the leftover chicken
  • Wrap sandwiches with shredded pork or chicken and fresh garden veggies
  • Homemade spaetzle with jarred sauce (mine or store-bought organic) and cheese
  • Beef and sausage meatballs in a jarred masala sauce
  • Cheesy potato soup or similar hearty soup
  • Grilled cheese and canned or boxed tomato soup
All of these are accompanied by garden veggies in season. None of these meals take long to prepare or eat.

I eat all of my lunches at home, so I'll depend on more traditional lunches like salads of garden veggies or PB&J (one of my favorites!).  But Mr. FC&G is at a client site most days, so he takes a lunch with him 3-4 days a week to save money and give him a healthier option.  To make this happen, we package up a lunch for him while we are cleaning up the dishes; often, he'll take the leftovers of dinner, but sometimes we'll make a wrap sandwich or something similar that will travel well.

I find cooking relaxing, so I often incorporate some kitchen time into my relaxation.  I might make bread, bake cookies, or even dabble in making yogurt or sour cream.  I also have a number of food activities I can do while I work, like making a batch of homemade ginger ale in the crock pot or drying fresh herbs for future meals.  I also like to can items that will stock the pantry:  homemade tomato sauce, beef stew, or soup stock.  All of these activities keep our pantry and fridge stocked with the elements that will make for easier meal prep on a busy night.

Friday (or Saturday) is often our night out to eat, depending on schedule and budget constraints.  We try to choose a healthy option when we can, and we bring home any leftovers for the next day's lunch (if that's appropriate).

We rely on a few overall tips to keep us going through our week.

  • Cook in bulk.  Any time you are turning on an appliance, make extra of what you are cooking, whether that's cooking a whole roast for two people, making a double batch of spaetzle, or making an extra grilled cheese.  Never cook just one meal if you can help it.  If you turn on the oven, make it do its job by making a loaf of bread alongside that roast or otherwise combining foods that need to cook at the same temp.
  • Process the food immediately.  What makes leftovers difficult is turning them into another meal:  cold roast or chicken gets hard to shred or cut, and it is unmotivating to turn the leftovers of almost anything into something else once they've been stored a while.  Go ahead and cut your leftovers down into the form you will need them later in the week while they are still warm and fairly appetizing: shred, trim, slice, or the like.  Don't forget to put bones in the stock bucket to make stock for soup.
  • Package future servings.  Again, it's the prep that keeps people from packing lunches.  Have some glass containers that will go from fridge to microwave, and go ahead and package up the next day's lunch while you are doing the dishes.  That way, it is easy to grab and go.

Do you have great ideas for speeding up meal prep?  Let me know in the comments!

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Things My Garden Just Won't Do

I talk a lot about my garden successes on this blog (and show pictures of them, like the one on the right), which might inadvertently create the impression that I always know what I'm doing out there.  So, from time to time, I find it cathartic to admit that there are some things that my garden just won't do:

My garden won't grow pumpkins:  I've tried to grow pumpkins about half of the years we've lived here, and I can't do it.  I've tried plants, commercial seed, seed I've saved from heirlooms, and seed I've started in the greenhouse.  To date, I've harvested precisely one pumpkin in 13 summers.  I give.

My garden won't grow melons:  Likewise, I've tried to grow cantaloupe and watermelons several times, and I've never harvested a single fruit.  I think it has to do with me giving the tomatoes and cucumbers the sunniest spots, leaving the melons in slightly more dappled shade.  But you'd think I'd get something out of them occasionally.  Again, I'm done.

My carrots are always squat:  I know better than to try to grow eight-inch carrots around here with Ohio's clay soil, but even the beds that I carefully mix with peat moss and sand still give me short, fat little carrots.  I've taken to growing only container varieties to quell the disappointment.

Cucumber beetles and powdery mildew are a way of life:  Although I employ every organic method to delay and prevent the onset of these two scourges, they almost always take my cucumbers and zucchini in the end.  This year, I delayed losing plants until well into August.  Last year was the first year I didn't have any plants at all succumb to beetles and mildew.  I'd never seen a cucumber vine die a natural death before that, and I was kind of amazed.

Is there anything your garden just won't grow?  Commiserate in the comments!
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Friday, September 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August 2014

August is what we work for here on the micro-farm. The whole rest of the year builds up to one enormous harvest month, and even the late harvest season couldn't slow us down.  This month, we harvested $358 worth of produce weighing 92.6975 pounds.

The garden became profitable on August 9, and some highlights as of the end of August include:

  • The San Marzano tomato has given us 188 ounces (11.75 pounds) of fruit, for a retail value of $52.64.  Likewise, the Cuor di Bue tomato has given us 184 ounces (11.5 pounds) of fruit for a total retail value of $51.52. That's over $100 of fruit from just two plants. 
  • The Steakhouse tomato started bearing fruit later than these transplants from Tennessee, but by the end of August we had harvested 146 ounces (9.125 pounds) or a retail value of $40.88.  My continual favorite, the Black Krim, has given us 64 ounces (4 pounds) of fruit so far, for a value of $17.92.  Since I believe the tomatoes are actually running about three weeks behind schedule, I'm hoping I can keep them going into September, because there's a lot of great green fruit out therre.
  • For those who believe volunteer tomatoes never yield anything, I submit my harvest as of the end of August:  I've gotten 35 ounces (2.1875 pounds) of fruit for a retail value of $9.80 off of my volunteers.  All of them seem to be bearing fruit late, so I expect this total to really pop in September barring an early freeze.
  • We've harvested over 16 pounds of butternut squash, for a value of $51.40.  
  • Cucumbers and zucchini have nearly finished up at lower totals than last year's spectacular harvest:  625 ounces (over 39 pounds) of cucumbers for a value of $100, and 255 ounces (nearly 16 pounds) of zucchini for a value of $53.55.
Beans are also doing very, very well this year, and we have plenty of carrots, potatoes, and kale yet to harvest.  I think the fall harvest should be stronger than usual this year.

However, in spite of the good performance, we are nearly $100 behind last year's tally for this time.  Let's hope a strong September brings us back up to par!  I'd love to have my garden savings top $500 this year, but only time will tell.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,226.0
Pounds: 139.125

Total Value of Harvest: $509.50
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $223.37
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Late Summer Garden To-Do List

And just like that, Labor Day has passed.  For Midwestern gardeners, it's time to start thinking about fall.  My to-do list on these last sunny weekends looks like this:

1.  Remove garden plants as they finish up.  I've already removed the Cuor di Bue tomato that started bearing on July 1 and was a mass of brown on Sept. 1.  Next out will be the other Tennessee tomatoes: the San Marzano is done, and the Box Car Willie will soon follow.  If you aren't up to date on the saga of the Tennessee tomatoes, I promise a recap at the end of gardening season.

2.  Burn any garden plants that suffered from bacterial wilt.  Order beneficial nematodes for the garden to help curb the problem next year.

3.  Nurture the fall garden.  I put in some peas and broccoli, and now I need to keep fending off the critters that want to eat the tender shoots as they make it up over the tops of our critter fencing tubes.  I'll be putting up the pop-up greenhouse soon to create a little garden to weather the frost.

4.  Keep canning.  I need to do another batch of tomato sauce soon, and I recently tried canning green beans and loved it.  

What are you doing in the garden this late summer?
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Friday, August 29, 2014

Tomato Review: Burpee's Steakhouse

This year, I've been all about the heirloom tomatoes, with several new varieties joining old favorites: Cuor di Bue, San Marzano, Box Car Willie, Black Krim, Amish Paste, and, of course, my cherished volunteer tomatoes.  But I have to give a nod to my new favorite hybrid tomato:  Burpee's Steakhouse Hybrid.

Now, contrary to the product description, I have yet to get a three pound tomato out of these, but I am regularly getting tomatoes that are between 10 ounces and one pound.  Not too shabby, when many of the rest of my tomatoes are coming in at 4-8 ounces.

The flesh of these is meaty and dense, but it retains a juiciness and sliceability.  It's easy to peel if you like your slicers peeled on a plate, as I do, and it even adds a great deal of volume to sauce.

The Steakhouse Hybrid is an excellent addition to your garden for both canning and for eating raw.  Even though I'll keep growing heirlooms, I'll save room next year for a few of these beauties.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pressure-Canned Beef Stew

Thank heavens for a blurry, tilted iPhone photo, because this has got to be the ugliest thing I've ever canned.  But it will get the job done!

Friday, I told you that I was contemplating putting up some beef stew for Mr. FC&G.  He works a lot of long hours, and this often means he's in a factory environment at all hours of the day and night.  Seeking a meal means vending machines or fast food if he doesn't take food along with him.  But he really needs options that are shelf-stable (desk-drawer-stable?), so that he doesn't have to worry if he takes a lunch and then winds up not eating it because he's busy or because the guys opted to go out to eat.

Enter beef stew.  This recipe could be fairly expensive, except the garden is in full production right now.  Therefore, the only thing I bought was the beef and the onion.  It also takes a while to make, but most of that time was pressure canning time, so I just needed to be near the canner and not actively supervising it.  (That is, I'm in the room, but I'm not watching it like I would a television show.  Never leave a pressure canner completely alone.)

Beef Stew
2 lbs. beef stew meat (I used organic beef from our farmer's market)
1 large onion, diced (organic)
1 qt. stock (home canned from my pantry)
8 oz. sliced carrots (garden)
8 oz. snapped green beans (garden)
1 t. dried thyme (garden)
1 t. dried marjoram (garden)
1 t. corn starch for thickening (never flour if you are going to pressure can)
salt and pepper to taste.

Brown stew meat and cook onions until translucent.  Add stock and vegetables and bring to a steady simmer, adding the corn starch for thickening if you wish right before canning.

Into sterile pint canning jars, ladle the stew, leaving about 1 inch headspace (about the thickness of the jar threads).  Seal and process in pressure canner, 75 minutes at 15 lbs pressure.  (Note:  We are right at 1,000 feet, and my canner instructions says to always can at 15 lbs pressure above 1,000.  If you are truly below 1,000 feet, 10 lbs. pressure should be fine.

The Analysis
Fast:  This recipe took me about two and a half hours, so not very fast.

Cheap:  Organic stew beef is $9.50 per pound at our farmer's market, so I was happy to pay $19 to finish this recipe and have the peace of mind of the quality of the meat.  The price was mitigated by how much produce and stock came from my own efforts.  Add in a bit for the onion and the starch, salt, and pepper, and this still comes in at $20 for four healthy-sized servings, or $5 per meal.

Good:  I've got to be honest:  beef stew is a bridge too far for my picky palate.  But Mr. FC&G nodded approvingly when I took him a sample before canning, so I guess it works!
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Friday, August 22, 2014

Today I Am...

Well, this week certainly got away from me!  It's Friday afternoon, and I owe everyone a blog post.

The thing is, many of the sustainability projects and activities I'm doing aren't new; they're the regular late summer things.  So, I'm taking a leaf out of The Non-Consumer Advocate's book and telling you what I'm up to today. (But before you read, please head on over to The Non-Consumer Advocate and tell Katy how much you love her blog!)

Today I am....

  • Dealing with some challenging work projects.
  • Looking for just the right new writing project for fall to replace a gig that fell through.
  • Visiting the farmer's market for organically-raised stew beef so I can make Mr. FC&G some pressure canned jars of beef stew for his winter lunches.  I love the thought that he can take a jar with him to work and either reheat it that day or have it available the next day.  Since he sometimes works 16 hours at a stretch, finding food that's healthy and that travels well to work is really important if I want him to eat well and avoid the fast food.
  • Trying to figure out whether Mr. FC&G is pulling one of the aforementioned 16-hour shifts tonight, which would leave me to find something to do on my own.
  • Contemplating whether that "something to do" will be crocheting and watching Netflix.  I'm excited about a new line of bamboo/silk yoga socks I have in my Etsy store, and I'm eager to add more.
  • Looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow morning!  I don't want to open my eyes until that clock reads double digits in the hours column, thank you very much!

So how about you?  Tell me what sustainable activities you're up to!

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Not Your Average Cook-out

I love a good "burgers and dogs" cookout as much as the next person.  But once in a while, its nice to be able to "kick it up a notch" and really make something special over an open fire.

Mr. FC&G and I did just that last night.  We recently built a new fire pit in the area where a much-neglected rose bush once stood.  It's just a simple circle of landscaping brick with a thick layer of lava rock in the bottom, but it already is a favorite feature of our garden area.

For dinner, we seasoned some salmon fillets with Old Bay, and then we cooked them beside a saute pan full of a splash of olive oil, a cube of frozen basil pesto, and a bunch of fresh veggies:  spiral-sliced zucchini, plus peas, beans, tomatoes, and cilantro.  A little sea salt and some wood smoke were all the additional seasonings needed.

Let me tell you, this was perhaps one of the best meals we have ever made.  Maybe it was hunger from chopping wood all day, or maybe it was the freshness of the veggies, but this was $25-a-plate kind of flavor.  And it was all on the cheap in our back yard -- we didn't even pay for electricity to turn on the stove.  That's what I call a sustainable win!

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Science of Canning: Part II

OK, now that we've got the science of canning down pat (and I gave you the weekend to either ponder tonicity or conclude that I'm nuts), it's time to put it into practice.

(Note, and I am not kidding about this:  This blog is not the substitute for following good canning practices.  I am not responsible for canning errors, failures, or food spoilage.  You are responsible for your own food safety.  The system I'm about to share does not replace the need to follow a proven canning recipe and the practices set forth by the USDA.)

OK, legal disclaimer out of the way, let's play a game! Your challenge is to can some food, and get the highest score possible:

Canning/Preserving Method

  • Pressure canning:  The most secure of all canning methods, this does a complete job of killing all bacteria in the food and on the inside of the jar with both pressure and heat.  5 points
  • Water bath canning:  For most high-acid foods, this is the right choice, doing a nearly complete job on the bacteria with heat.  4 points
  • Freezing:  Good for short term storage of less than a year, this doesn't kill bacteria but slows them way down.  3 points
  • Open kettle canning:  This traditional method of canning relies on having hot jars and hot food to sterilize the jar and headspace and seal the jar.  It is no longer considered safe by the USDA, although there are some home canners that still use it.  2 points
The Canning Environment

  • Acidity:  Boosting the acid, often through the addition of cider vinegar, is a time honored way of preserving food.  In fact, acid plus salt is the reason that you can leave a pickle crock standing out in a general store with no problem to the pickles.  The value of acidity depends on how much is in the food itself and how much you add.  2-3 points
  • Salt/Sugar:  By playing with the tonicity in the canning environment, you can kill the little bacteria that threaten your food.  Like acidity, the effectiveness depends on how much you add.  2-3 points
  • Spices:  Herbs and spices often have their own food preservation qualities, which is why they have traditionally been used in preservation.  We no longer routinely rely on spices to preserve our food, but they help.  1 point

  • Give yourself 1 point for setting up your kitchen like an operating theater, complete with a clean apron for you, sterilized jars, and clean utensils.
  • Give yourself 1 point for following a modern canning recipe to the letter, not deviating on amount of acid, salt, or sugar, and for processing the items for the full time specified.

If you are playing along, look at your canning processes and try to get a score of at least 6 on every project. Examples:
  • Canned stew beef:  Proper recipe and procedure (1 point) + pressure canning (5 points) = 6 points
  • Pickles:  Acid (2 points) + Salt (2 points) + Water bath canning (4 points) = 8 points
  • Freezer jam:  Sugar (2 points) + Freezer (3 points) + Clean environment (1 point) = 6 points

Again, this is not a substitute for following proper instructions, but it should be a way for you to think about your food preservation in a scientific way and assess whether your recipes and process are up to snuff!  And, for you preppers out there, this is a good way to start thinking about food preservation in a grid-down situation when you may not have all the resources you would ideally want on hand.
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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Science of Canning: Part I

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people say they "aren't using their education" because they are doing domestic duties on a full- or part-time basis.  OK, maybe you don't have to have professional licensure to keep house, but the more education you have, the better you will do at the job.

Case in point: home canning.

Canning season is now upon us, and every year there are one or more stories in the media about safety concerns about food you put up yourself.  Not only are these threats of spoiled and dangerous food dramatically overestimated, but a simple knowledge of science will go a long way toward keeping your food safe.

Let's go back to a few principles:

Tonicity:  Remember high school biology? If you are like me, you spent a lot of time trying to figure out the concepts of something being "hypertonic" and "hypotonic," probably in relation to red blood cells and the surrounding plasma.  It was always confusing, but it's an important concept in home canning.

The concept is this:  systems like to be in balance.  A cell, which is filled with water, solutes (substances dissolved in the water), and organelles (little cell organs), will try to achieve a balance with the liquid that it lives in.  If the cell has more solutes than the surrounding liquid, it will take in liquid until there is a balance.  If the cell has more water than the surrounding liquid, it will eject water until there's a balance.  If it takes on too much water, it will explode; if it expells too much, it will "dry up" and die.

If this has you scratching your head, stay with me: the implications for home canning are simple.  In canning, we are trying to control the presence and growth of bacteria, which are just cells.  Often, we do this by playing with the tonicity.  For example, if I pickle my cucumbers in a brine, I've put the cucumbers and whatever bacteria are hitching a ride into a solution that has way more solutes in it than the bacteria cells do, because the brine is salty.  The brine is hypertonic to the bacteria cells.

We often think that salt "draws the water out" of things.  It does, in this very process.  And not only does a brine make the cells of the cucumbers release water and get floppy, it also draws the water out of bacteria cells.  The bacteria cells quickly reach a state in which they don't have enough interior water to live, and they die.  This is why salt and brine have been such an important food preservation method throughout history; salt creates an environment that the bacteria can't easily live in because they expel too much of their own water. Sugar will do the same thing, which is why jams and jellies are so shelf-stable and why we often recommend them as a first canning project.

pH:  We also control bacterial growth by changing the pH of the environment inside our canning jars.  If you've heard of "high acid" and "low acid" foods, you know that acidity is an important component of keeping foods safe.  Most bacteria prefer an environment that is a neutral pH, so plunging them into an acidic environment will kill them or inhibit their growth.  This is why we put added lemon juice or vinegar into our home-canned tomato juice and sauce.  Tomatoes used to be a very acidic fruit and thus very safe to can, but modern tastes have led to the development of hybrids that are much less acidic.  Therefore, we have to boost the acidity (lower the pH) to create an environment that our little buggy friends don't like.

Temperature:  Temperature is a very effective way of controlling bacterial growth, and some temperatures will kill bacteria.  For example, temperatures above 165 degrees F will kill many bacteria, which is why we use meat thermometers to make sure our Thanksgiving turkeys have reached the right internal temperature.
Heat that doesn't reach 165 but is still above 140 will slow bacterial growth, which is why we keep hot food hot when we serve it.  Likewise, freezing food doesn't kill bacteria, but it does slow its growth, which is why frozen food keeps a long time but not forever.

Water bath canning relies on something called "convective heat transfer," which means that it is the transfer of heat due to the movement of fluids.  If you process your canning in a water bath canner, you are basically using convection to sterilize the interior of the jar, the head space, and the food.  Because this process is never 100 percent effective, we only process high acid foods in water bath canners.

Pressure:  Pressure is another force that kills bacteria, and it is one of the most effective around.  Like our own bodies, bacterial cells can only withstand a certain amount of pressure before they burst and die. Pressure canning is therefore possibly the very safest way of preserving food, because it creates enough pressure to kill all of the bacteria in the jar and in the food, plus it employs heat to help the job.  A pressure canner is basically an autoclave, that machine that your doctor or dentist uses to sterilize medical equipment, and, indeed, a pressure canner can be used to autoclave medical equipment in an extreme emergency.

Antibacterials/Antifungals/Antimicrobials:  Finally, some spices have their own antibacterial properties, which is why many preserved foods, particularly those that were developed before pressure canning or modern freezers, are so highly spiced.  Some traditional medical lore (used before modern antibiotics and germ theory) even suggests treating wounds and diseases with certain herbs, spices, and plants with antibacterial, antifungal, or antimicrobial actions.

OK, so what do we do with all that?  Tune in for my next post, in which I'll introduce you to my theory of how to combine scientific preservation methods to ensure a safe product.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July 2014

The garden vaulted into production this month, with about 39 pounds of produce coming in, just over a pound a day.  This bounty almost obscures the fact that, compared to last year, we are about $100 behind last year's end-of-July tally. 

There are two reasons for the relative shortfall:
  • This has been one of the coldest, longest springs on record, extending well into summer.  I've always said I wish a June garden could last forever, and I almost got my wish this year. Most gardeners I know estimate that we are about three weeks behind normal this year, which means a lot of fruit set on the tomatoes but a delayed harvest overall.
  • We harvested an insane amount of cucumbers last year:  73 pounds, most of which came in July.  We are having a good cucumber year this year, but it is much more normal, at 21 pounds so far.
So what are our triumphs this month?  They are many.  We had one small seed expenditure, and a great deal of harvest.  In addition to the cucumbers, some notable totals YTD include:
  • Cuor di Bue tomato: 39 ounces
  • Box Car Willie tomato: 22 ounces
  • San Marzano tomato: 22 ounces
  • Super Sauce tomato: 8 ounces
  • Black Krim tomato: 7 ounces
  • Basil: 11 ounces
  • Zucchini: 140 ounces
  • Peas: 13.5 ounces
It's telling that I am still harvesting peas daily at the end of July/beginning of August, even though it should be far too warm for peas.  The tomatoes, too, are poised for a great August, since we have several varieties that have not yet begun to redden, plus the ones mentioned above are still producing.

So, while we are far from profitability yet, I'm pleased to have brought in 46 pounds of produce YTD with a retail value of $151.50.  Bring on August!

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 743
Pounds: 46.4375

Total Value of Harvest: $151.50
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $-134.63
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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sustainable Tool: Spaetzle Maker

I've never been a big fan of "unitaskers."  Ever since I heard Alton Brown make fun of kitchen tools that do one thing and one thing only, I've tried to avoid their siren song.  As of recently, I think I owned only two:  my cherry pitter (because when you need it, you need it) and my ice cream maker (which also makes frozen yogurt, so I guess it is a duotasker).

I just added a third:  a spaetzle maker from Lehman's. (Note: This is not an affiliate link, and I don't get money from Lehman's.)

Although I think we're all trying to cut our carbs, I do really enjoy pasta.  A reasonable compromise seems to be to cut down our consumption and to make my own, thereby ensuring that our pasta is made with organic flour and farm eggs from pastured hens, and without a side of Round-up.  But I always hated forcing the batter through the screen of a grater or a pot strainer, and I'd leave my spaetzle-making to the weekends.

Enter the spaetzle maker.  Just mix up some fairly loose batter, fill that little hopper on top, then move the hopper back and forth across the grater.  The grater is sturdy and hooks onto nearly any size pot.  The gap between the hopper and the grater allows just enough batter to be forced through the grater to make perfect-sized droplets.  I was able to make a batch in just minutes.

The spaetzle maker does have a few grooves that are a bit challenging to clean, but I think if I did a better job of rinsing before putting it in the dishwasher, it would clean up better.  The hopper comes off to facilitate this cleaning.

While I'm still going to try to reduce our carbs, I feel better knowing that I can replace more store-bought pasta with homemade.  Now that's an improvement!

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Pollo Saltado II

I've been toying with my recipe for pollo saltado, a Peruvian chicken and potato dish, for over a year now. While I'm happy with my quickie version, I craved something a little more complex in flavor.

What we have here is my latest attempt, and I think it is quite good.  I substitute homemade spaetzle for the traditional potato component, and the traditional soy sauce flavor is brought in through the way the chicken is roasted rather than through adding it to the sauce.  The whole thing took about two hours to make, although half of that was chicken roasting time.

Pollo Saltada: Peru with a German Twist

2 pastured chicken breasts
2 T. organic butter
1/2 c. soy sauce (no HFCS)
sprig of rosemary, chopped

In a 350 degree oven, roast two chicken breasts for an hour in a roasting pan with the butter, soy sauce, and rosemary.  Baste regularly until the meat is almost falling apart.  (Note:  I did 4 chicken breasts with this same amount of basting sauce, so now I have two left over for wraps later this week.)

Meanwhile, make the spaetzle:

2 c. organic flour
2 pastured eggs
1 t. salt
water to make a slightly loose paste

Mix together ingredients and force through a strainer or a spaetzle-making tool (more on this later in the week) into boiling water.  Remove the little dumplings when they start to float and reserve them in a dish with butter to keep them from sticking to one another.

When you have everything prepped, assemble with:
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 jar organic marinara sauce
3/4 cup garden peas (or more if you have them)
1 c. garden cilantro, chopped

Cook onion in saute pan with a bit of butter until translucent.  Add chicken, spaetzle, and marinara sauce.  Add peas and cilantro last, and cook just until peas are tender and cilantro is wilted.

The Analysis
Fast:  As I said, this one is a little fussy.  I took about two hours to make this, but half of that was roasting the chicken while I was actually outside planting fall peas.  If I did everything together, I could probably get it done in 90 minutes.  So, this is a good weekend dish for when you have time to mess around in the kitchen.

Cheap:  I paid up for the best flour, chicken, and eggs, so I spent some money.  But this is really an exercise in featuring the plentiful garden cilantro, the precious peas, and the wonderful, fresh-butchered chicken.

Good:  This one's worth the effort and the cost.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sustainable Skill: Driving

I've always hated to drive.  Although I occasionally have the opportunity to drive a car that I really enjoy being behind the wheel of, mostly I view it at best as a necessary evil of transportation and at worst as a boring chore punctuated by occasional demonstrations of other drivers' idiocy.

But I can drive, and I daresay I drive well.  And I have been driving for as long as I have been legally allowed. Although my memory is hazy on the specifics of 1980s Indiana driver's license law, I do remember that those of us who took a driver's ed class could get our licenses a month past our sixteenth birthday.  This is how I wound up at the DMV after a major snow in December, proving that I could drive on slick roads and avoiding idiots who wouldn't adjust their speed for conditions.  I still think I was exempted from the parallel parking test in part because I skillfully avoided getting hit by one of these speeding idiots, and in part because there were no parking spots not filled with snow drifts. Nonetheless, I was unwilling to wait so much as an extra week for better testing conditions; proving that I had the skill and could achieve the rite of passage were that important to me.

But lately, I've noticed a change.  Young people don't drive.  And it isn't just that they don't drive, it's that they can't drive.  I know many young -- and not so young -- people who don't have driver's licenses and who depend on others to ferry them around.  The fact that AAA can run an advertisement trying to encourage parents to goad their adult children into learning to drive before college starts shows just how much things have changed.

I've been hemming and hawing over writing this post for over a month, especially because I'm about to tell you that learning to drive, in this society, is just as important a sustainable living skill as knowing how to grow your own food.  And while I don't want to insult those who choose not to drive, I think that not being able to or legally allowed to is an unnecessary sacrifice of potential independence.

This is not to say that I think extensive, unnecessary driving is a good idea.  You don't have to drive to do your errands if you can make a bike work for you.  Carpooling to school or work is a great idea.  Heck, you don't even have to own a car if you don't want to.

But for heaven's sake, and, more importantly, for your own protection, learn how to drive a car and become legally licensed to do so.  You never know when you will get caught in a situation when you are the only available driver and you need to be able to drive competently: a small child in your care has to get medical care or you are out with friends that become ill or incapacitated.  You also never know when being able to use this tool -- and a car is a tool -- will help you live a more traditionally sustainable or frugal life.  City dwellers might borrow a Zip Car occasionally to stock up at a far-flung farmer's market or warehouse club. Those in suburbs and rural areas will find that driving is essential to access many of the resources you need for living, at least occasionally.

With that said, I will soon return to discussions of gardening, crocheting, cooking, and other more traditional sustainable activities.  But if you don't have a driver's license, please: learn to drive and get licensed.  What you do after that is your call.
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Friday, July 18, 2014

Identifying Bacterial Wilt in Cucumbers

Into every gardener's life a little tragedy must fall, and when you grow cucumbers, that tragedy usually takes the form of bacterial wilt.

I planted two entire packages of Burpee Pickler and Straight Eight cucumbers, my favorite varieties.  And, to my surprise, I had a really high germination rate.  Thus, I have cucumbers climbing my cucumber trellis, cucumbers under my sunroom windows, cucumbers on the terraced hillside that Mr. FC&G is excavating, and cucumbers in a grow box.  Those are the ones you see to the right in the photo.

Bacterial wilt is an insidious disease spread by cucumber beetles.  If you've never seen such a beetle, you're in for a treat, at least initially.  They are simply the prettiest bugs ever; they look like something that should have been dreamed up by Willy Wonka, with their neon yellow bodies decorated by precise black stripes or dots.  Really, these things look too perfect to be bugs.

Trust me, they are.  They harbor a bacterium in their systems when they are waiting to emerge in the spring, and when they come out to mate and feed, they chew on the stems and leaves of your curcubits (including cucumbers) and inject the bacteria.  Once the plant has caught the bacteria, the water transportation system inside the stems and leaves gradually shuts down, leaving a plant that looks like the droopy one in the photo. There is no cure; I'll be removing this plant this weekend.  The other plants in this box are probably fine; at least; I hope they are.

Since there's no cure for wilt, gardeners are left to guess if their plant is infected until it makes itself evident. Sometimes, a few leaves will wilt and I will panic, only to find the plant was eager for water.  That's always a good first diagnostic step, although it is not 100 percent on identifying wilt.

I knew I'd have to deal with a little of this scourge because I had an absolute flock of cucumber beetles emerge over the Fourth of July.  I went outside to the garden about once an hour during the morning and evening (when they are most active) and pinched them off the flowers, where they were sitting and mating, of all things.  The nerve of them!  I hope they enjoyed it, because it was the last thing they'll ever do. Nonetheless, I couldn't get all of them, so it was inevitable I'd lose a few vines to wilt.

I installed some yellow sticky traps and used some insecticidal soap spray for control, and now I'm only seeing one or two beetles on a plant a week.  This fall, I'll probably spray with beneficial nematodes, which help control the cucumber beetle larvae.

In the meantime, the only thing to do is make sure I don't spread the wilt myself.  That means being careful about not touching other plants or harvesting with hands that have handled wilted plants or that have squished bugs, and disposing of wilted plants some place other than compost.
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