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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