Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tiny Tips: Broccoli Stalks

For the Christmas dinner we hosted for family, we finally gave in and bought a few vegetables at the grocery store. By and large, we had been subsisting on vegetables from our own garden that we either canned, froze or left to overwinter in the beds. But something fresh and green, other than our own leeks, seemed reasonable for Christmas dinner. So I bought a large head of organic broccoli.

Broccoli was one of our favorite vegetables before we began growing Tuscan kale. We haven't missed it at all since this kale became a staple of our diet. But undeniably, broccoli has its virtues too. One thing that few people realize about broccoli is that the stalk is also edible, or at least the core of the stalk is. The tough green skin covering the stalk will cause gas, but it's easy enough to peel.

Broccoli stalk is less flavorful than the florets, and its nutritional profile is slightly different, being notably higher in calcium and Vitamin C, but lower in other key nutrients. It has a nice, slightly watery crunch that's good in a stir-fry. I think it resembles a water chestnut more than anything else. It can be added in with the florets in pretty much any recipe that calls for them. I've also seen the stalk cut into neat batons and pickled. If pickled, the stalk will provide a healthy dose of fiber, but not much in the way of nutrition. In any case, broccoli stalk should be considered edible and not wasted. You should be able to get at least one extra serving of vegetable by including the stalk.

You can peel the stalk using a vegetable peeler. But I find it faster to pare it with a chef's knife. After removing the florets, trim the bottom and stand the stalk upright on your cutting board. Beginning in the middle of the stalk, cut downwards to remove the skin, cutting in just deeply enough to remove the outer and inner layers of peel. When the lower half is completely peeled, turn it upside down and peel the top half in the same way. The edible center will taper significantly at the end where the florets formed.

I'm particularly fond of broccoli stalk in a traditional Italian dish from the region of Puglia. Orecchiette con broccoletti is a dish of "little ears" pasta dressed with a garlicky olive oil-based sauce, and anchovies, hot pepper flakes, and broccoli rabe. It works fine with regular broccoli too, and I've prepared it several times for people who claim not to like anchovies. No one has ever complained. When cut up into small pieces, the stalk complements the dish nicely, falling into the bowl-shaped pasta pieces. And it fits in perfectly with the Italian abhorrence of waste in the kitchen.

But this time I used the broccoli stalk in a simple dish of stir-fried rice.

Broccoli leaves are highly edible and absolutely delicious when small (under 6" long). I once frequented a farmer's market where one vendor sold the baby broccoli leaves as cooking greens. They were highly addictive.

Do not save broccoli stalk or any other member of the cabbage family for use in making stock. The sulferous cabbage family becomes notoriously fartacious when cooked too long. Most other vegetable trimmings and peelings are good for making stock. Compost any non-edible parts of broccoli and its relatives.

More tiny tips: More Sunlight in Your Garden, Parboil Your Pasta, Repurpose Your Credit Card, Make the Most of Old Man Winter, Scallions

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Limits of Garlic

This year I harvested about 11 pounds of garlic from my backyard garden. After it had cured for a few weeks, we started eating it in the latter part of July. This week I had to finally admit that all the remaining three varieties were reaching the limits of storage. Each time I cut into a bulb, a slender yellow-green shoot was visible in the center, getting ready to bust out of the bulb and sprout. So, with a somewhat sad heart, I decided it was time to process the rest of the bulbs before the sprouting went any further.

I used three different methods to process the garlic. All of them rendered the stinking rose suitable for long term storage. The first method requires some specialized equipment, but the other two do not.

Method the first: I peeled and thinly sliced three heads of garlic, then arranged the slices on a tray of my dehydrator. It took about six hours or so to remove the moisture and render the slices into tough dry garlic chips. These will store at room temperature indefinitely, though they won't last all that long. I'll keep them tightly sealed in clean glass jar in the cupboard, where it'll be fairly dark. In this form, the garlic can be used in soups or stews. If I grind the chips up, I'll have homemade garlic powder, which might be nice on pizza.

The second method was making compound butter. I processed the majority of my remaining garlic in this way. All I had to do was allow butter to soften, and finely mince the garlic. I mixed these two ingredients together until the garlic was evenly blended into the butter. Then I formed the compound butter into little logs, wrapped them up in plastic wrap, and froze them. This will probably prove to be the most versatile form of processed garlic. And it's got more garlic than I would normally use for the amount of butter in there, which means it's highly concentrated. I'll get a lot of garlic for just a little added butter, though I can always add more butter if I want to. There are numerous ways of using this garlic compound butter: on toast, in sauces, on pasta, in mashed potatoes, and as a dollop of decadence on servings of soup. I could even fry my eggs in it. It will keep in the freezer for about three months.

Lastly, I roasted a few heads of garlic when I prepared a whole chicken for dinner. This is a very simple way of processing garlic. I simply removed as many of the papery layers around the bulbs as I could, and then cut off the top of the head so that a portion of each bulb was exposed. Some people add a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt to heads of garlic before roasting. I don't bother, because the roasted garlic tastes great without this extra step. I just wrap each head in a small piece of aluminum foil and toss it in the oven for about an hour. The temperature doesn't matter too much. Anything from 300F to 400F could work, with the total roasting time varying accordingly. Roasted garlic won't keep as easily or as long as the other methods of processing. But on the other hand, it's also the most ready to eat form of the three methods. I find myself spreading a few sticky-sweet cloves on sandwich bread and adding them whole to just about anything I can think of to eat. If I had a great many heads of roasted garlic, I would store some in the freezer, very well wrapped up.

There are other good methods for storing garlic. Pickling is one good method. And some Russians I know swear by a cure-all made from hot chili peppers and raw garlic marinated for several days in vodka. Garlic confit is another cooked form of processing in which many whole cloves are very gently poached in olive oil.

But I have a serious warning now for a garlic storage method which has an enduring and dangerous popularity. Do not store raw garlic in oil, not even in the refrigerator. Like all root vegetables, garlic always has the potential of harboring the botulism bacteria, which is commonly found in most soil types. This is a facultative anaerobic bacteria. What that means is that it can survive in the presence of lots of oxygen, but it really prefers a very low-oxygen environment. When garlic is in the soil, sitting on your shelf, or hanging in a net bag in your basement, it's harmless, because of the high-oxygen environment. The bacteria itself in fact poses no risk to us if we consume small quantities of it. But when you put raw garlic in oil, there is very little oxygen. That means that if there are any botulinum bacteria there, they'll be very happy, and they will begin to create the very powerful and deadly botulism toxin. This toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking, though you may well kill the bacteria that created the toxin. Only a microscopic amount of this toxin is needed to kill a healthy adult. While storing garlic in oil in the refrigerator may slow the bacteria down, it will not kill or completely halt the bacteria. I personally know people who have used this method of storage for years without any ill effects. But they're taking an incredible risk. If they should be unlucky enough to get a case of botulism poisoning, it won't make them sick; it'll probably kill them, and anyone else they serve their stored garlic to.

Okay, on to lighter topics. For kicks, I compared our personal per capita garlic consumption to national statistics. Given that we ate through 10 pounds of garlic in just under 6 months, I make that 10 pounds per person per year in our household. That puts us at more than three times the national average for the US. Of course, we don't come anywhere near Korean levels of garlic consumption, where the average adult reputedly eats through more than a bulb a day. We eat a LOT of it though, both raw and cooked. If it turns out that I live to some extraordinary old age, I'll attribute that longevity to garlic.

I will definitely miss having my own homegrown garlic for the next seven months or so, until next year's crop comes in. And I will deeply resent having to pay for it at the grocery store. I doubt any local grower of garlic will have any to offer at the few farmer's markets that continue to operate through the winter. But I am glad that I made the best use out of this produce and prevented it from going to waste.

Related posts:

Garlic Harvest
The Promise of Garlic
Processed Foods

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lottery Sales Down

I heard a piece on NPR a short while ago that discussed reduced lottery ticket sales in these tough economic times. My overall reaction was, "that's fantastic!" While there are a few downsides to this trend, I still think it's incredibly heartening news.

Lottery tickets have been called a "tax on the stupid." That's a rather harsh pronouncement, but it contains a sad grain of truth. Lottery tickets sell best in counties with the lowest incomes and highest rates of unemployment, to the very people who can least afford to risk what little money they have. A Chicago journalist quoted people in impoverished neighborhoods who spend anywhere from $7 to $25 per day on the lottery. Buying a ticket gives them a brief momentary thrill of hope. But of course few of those hopes are ever realized. In a neighborhood cited in that article the average annual income is $13,331, and the average adult spends $269 on lottery tickets per year. That's just over 2% of their gross income. Essentially, lottery tickets are a form of very long odds gambling, always a losing proposition. Mind you, I'm not saying the poor are stupid. But collectively it must be admitted that buying lottery tickets is not a smart strategy. Those same few dollars each day, if saved, could slowly grow into a substantial nest egg over the years. The odds on the nest egg will beat the odds on winning millions every single time.

But there's a grain of truth to the claim that lottery tickets are a tax too. In most states lottery proceeds go to support the public schools or other social services. That means that as fewer tickets are sold, education budgets suffer shortfalls. It's a sad state of affairs when our system of education has to rely on monies raised in this way. I don't like the idea of schools going begging for funds. But neither do I think that anyone struggling to make ends meet should fritter away their money chasing wildly improbable odds.

Ultimately, this is a good news-bad news sort of story. But I tend to look at this on the bright side: fewer people in difficult circumstances are foolishly throwing their money away. Schools may end up needing more help because of it. But I'd guess that schools have a better chance at getting money they need than the working poor have of getting extra money to replace the cost of lottery tickets. In my view, buying lottery tickets ranks right up there with smoking as one of the most pointless, destructive, and costly habits one can take up. Sure, if you're very rich there's little harm in buying a lottery ticket now and then. Most of us aren't in that boat though.

What say you? Do you ever buy lottery tickets? Is there any good reason to do so?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gardener's Pride

I am inordinately proud of my Blue Solaize leeks. I grew them from seed early last spring, and dutifully transplanted them into the lowest part of a trench along the side of my garden in early summer. As they grew taller I "blanched" them by filling the trench and then mounding dirt around them as they continued to grow. As a result I have leeks with white parts as much as good twelve inches long. A few of them still stand out in my garden even now. Because so much of their root is buried in the earth, they easily withstand the freezing temperatures we've been having.

I was amazed at the difference when we shopped for ingredients while visiting family for Thanksgiving. Even though I was able to buy organic leeks, the white parts were a measly five inches long, at most. It really struck me then, how well we eat. One of my leeks is the equivalent of two and a half to three store bought leeks. And it doesn't get any fresher than vegetables pulled from the ground or plucked from the vine in our own backyard. Including homegrown vegetables as integral parts of our Christmas feast was a huge thrill for me.

I am reminded more and more frequently of the personal recollections of those who lived through the Great Depression. Many, if not most, of those who lived in rural agricultural communities declared, "We were poor, but we never knew it." Or, "we didn't have any cash, but we always ate well." Since expanding our garden and adhering to my self-imposed $50 monthly grocery challenge over the summer months, we have eaten better than ever. I look at my homegrown leeks and I realize that I would be hard pressed to buy such quality at any price. We eat the highest quality food for the lowest possible price. And I'm consistently astounded at the aesthetic beauty of these leeks, once all the dirt is cleaned off.

All these things make it very easy to find the motivation to plan another garden for next year. Like every gardener, I harbor the conviction that next year's garden will be even better than this year's.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Grocery Outlet Score

On the way to the store where I most commonly grocery shop is a grocery outlet store. I stop there regularly, because it's on my way to my main shopping destination. But I rarely buy anything. There's never any telling what I'll find there, but by and large it's full of low-quality foodstuffs, most of which are at or past their sell-by date, or have damaged packaging. I stop there regulary though because every once in a great while I've come across organic dairy products. I once bought 12 pounds of organic butter there at $2 each. Having a chest freezer means I can take advantage of such rare deals.

Recently I lucked onto what is probably my best find yet. Fourteen bags of Organic Valley non-fat powdered milk. For $1.39 per bag. I cleaned out the store. Now, I had looked at buying these bags in the past. Once upon a time it was possible to use powdered milk for a substantial savings. But at least when it comes to organic powdered milk at regular prices, there's no savings to be had. A regularly priced bag is $6.99, and it makes 13 cups of reconstituted non-fat milk. That works out to 54 cents per cup, or $4.30 per half gallon, much more than I pay for fresh organic whole milk.

I have scored a few bags of this powdered milk before as a free handout from someone who had paid good money for them but hadn't used them. I used the powdered up bit by bit, adding about one cup to each half gallon of whole milk I bought. One cup of reconstituted non-fat milk becomes indistinguishable when diluted in a quart of more of whole milk, at least to us.

By stocking up on this powdered milk at such a great price, I've laid in a fantastic resource in terms of emergency preparedness. And I'll be cutting the cost of our organic milk for at least a year to come. By adding just one cup of the reconstituted milk, I've effectively lowered the price per half gallon from $3.69 to $3.37. If I add two cups per half gallon, the price per half gallon falls to $3.11. I also just like having powdered milk around for occasions when I want to bake something that calls for milk, without using up all the fresh milk I have on hand. It has certainly saved me a few grocery trips in the past.

I'm going to harangue you just a bit now about a frugal practice that many people dread. It's the price comparison book. This is just a little notebook in which you record the current prices for the foods you happen to shop for, at all of the places you shop at regularly, even if "regularly" means only once per year. While it is a chore to assemble this information, once you've done it, you hold in the palm of your hand an amazing wealth of hard facts and power. No one else can tell you where to find the best prices for the things you buy on a regular basis among the stores that are local to you. Plenty of people can speak in generalities about the consumer price index and regional prices, but you need information specific to you and your area to make the best shopping decisions.

Because I knew that these bags of powdered milk normally sell for $7 in my area, and because I knew how much I normally pay for fresh whole milk, it was completely obvious to me that $1.39 per bag was a steal. It's what gave me the confidence to buy up all fourteen bags on the shelf. If I'd had no idea how much this product normally costs, I might have bought only a bag or two, or none at all. The information in my price comparison book, collected for almost no cost at all, just allowed me a significant ongoing savings.

Non-fat powdered milk will keep for a very long time if it is stored in an airtight container, and in a dark and cool area. Fortunately, the powdered milk I purchased comes in a tightly sealed bag. Even better, I have room for them in my chest freezer, which will prolong their shelf life. I could keep them in the basement though if I didn't have room. Once the packages are opened, the powdered milk will begin to deteriorate, so I will try to use it up fairly quickly. Given the amount of baking I do and diluting our fresh milk with the powdered, I don't think we'll see any spoilage.

Have a look around in your area for grocery outlets. And if you don't see anything of interest there the first time you shop, give it another try about a month later. You may surprise yourself with what you can find there!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

News Items

I've been tagged by Undacova Mutha with a Bookworm Award. This is perfect, because I've been sluggish with the post ideas lately, what with holiday and health distractions, and my computer being in the repair shop. The deal with the Bookworm Award is that I grab a nearby book, open it to page 56 and share some text, starting from the fifth line on that page, here on my blog. Then I have to tag five other bloggers and pass the award along.

So here goes with the first part. I've been re-reading some old favorites lately. I swear I'm not making this up. I present an extract from Gene Logsdon's The Contrary Farmer:

Why didn't they go to the country and get a piece of land, Grandpaw would keep asking. It seemed so simple to him, secure in his barnyard with centuries of survival music to assure him: hens clucking, hogs squealing, cattle lowing, sheep blatting, roosters crowing, horses whinnying, bees buzzing, calves bawling, sons arguing, daughters giggling, and Grandmaw calling him in to dinner. If we lived such a dull life compared to our "urban counterparts," as the sociologists (the sons and daughters of those breadlines) say we did, why was my family always singing?

Now for the second part of this bookworm tagging. I hereby tag five other bloggers:

El, at Fast Grow the Weeds
Ali, at Henboggle
Phelan, at A Homesteading Neophyte
Trish, at City Mouse Farm
One Straw, Be The Change

Thanks for inviting me to play along, Undacova Mutha!

In other news, I've been invited to participate over at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op! I'm looking forward to joining a bunch of talented writers who cover a diverse set of topics. I'll be posting there about twice a month beginning in the new year. Have a wander over there and check out some of the great posts.

I may be quite scarce until my computer comes back in working order. I wish you all safe, frugal, and happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Candlewax of Frugality

I recall a practitioner of the Wiccan religion once telling me that every religion burdens its believers with something unpleasant that isn't really the point of the religion, just a necessary by product of sorts. She said that for Wiccans, it's dealing with all the candlewax that has to be scraped off of various surfaces after their ceremonies. She said that celibacy would be one equivalent unpleasant thing for unmarried Christians, especially Catholic priests and nuns. That idea always struck me as amusing, but interesting too. Frugality isn't a religion, but it sure has its share of candlewax.

Today I tackled some of the candlewax of frugality; I defrosted the chest freezer we keep in our unheated garage. This was one of those necessary chores that I knew I should be getting to in order to trim our electricity bill. But the task was about as appealing as scraping candlewax off a floor. All summer long I procrastinated, using the warm weather as an excuse. Today the high temperature forecast was for 35 degrees. No excuses there: the contents of the freezer would thaw only very slowly while I cleaned, and make it less urgent for me to work at top speed. I'm still getting over a nasty and very tenacious chest cold, so I'm not really working at 100% lately.

Our chest freezer is about as full as it possibly can be, thanks to our homegrown, hand-pressed apple cider, several quarts of homemade lamb stock, and my inclination to bake a lot during cold weather. While having a freezer full of food is reassuring, and more energy efficient than an empty freezer, it does make it hard to find things in there. It also makes for a lot of work when it's time for the defrost. But the build up of frost on the walls of the chest freezer is quite inefficient, because the freezer has to work harder to keep things cold.

As you can see in the picture above, I had allowed a full inch of ice to build up on certain parts of the freezer walls. The ice was quite unevenly distributed. But from what I've read, you're meant to defrost a freezer when the frost/ice is 1/4" thick. There were parts of the freezer with no ice at all, but clearly the defrosting was overdue.

You know what? Getting through this chore that I had put off for so long was pretty quick once I got started. It took less than an hour from start to finish, and that was with me having to make trips inside for warm water. Isn't that the way of things? It also gave me the chance to re-organize the chest freezer so that things are easier to get to, and I have a better sense of where everything is. While I had the chest freezer empty, I also pulled it away from the wall and dusted off the coil that is part of the cooling system. There wasn't much dust, but keeping that coil free of crud is another way to maximize the efficiency of the appliance.

So, all you chest-freezer-owning frugalites out there, I know I'm no shining example of frugal maintenance. But I'll just point out that winter is really the best time of year to defrost a freezer if you've got one that needs it. Time to get to some of that frugal candlewax. I hope your necessary but unappealing frugal chores turn out to be as unexpectedly easy as mine were today.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Further Thoughts on Holiday Giving

I know I'm very late to chime in on the topic of holiday gifts. I meant to finish this post earlier, but I've acquired a nasty case of the creeping crud, which has laid me pretty low for the last week or so. Anyway, here are a few thoughts on the topic.

I've posted previously about thinking (way) ahead for holiday gift giving. As you can well imagine, I'm no fan of the commercial and obligatory nature of gift exchange around the winter holidays. I'd rather skip it altogether, frankly. But I am a child of my culture, and the truth is I haven't managed to escape it, either as a giver or recipient of gifts. So I've given some thought to handling the gift situation in my own home and among my slightly extended family. I've also had a few general thoughts about gifts that have meant something to me over the long term.

As it happens, there are a very few things I actually need to buy for myself anytime soon. Things like socks and turtlenecks, which are half of my winter uniform. Most of my socks and turtlenecks are worn and threadbare. I'll continue to wear the turtlenecks until they fall apart a bit more, but I do want to get some that look more or less presentable. So turtlenecks and socks are going on my wishlist for Christmas. There's also a cookbook I've screened through the library which I would really like to own. So that's on my list as well. Basically, my approach then is one of asking for things I would otherwise almost certainly end up purchasing myself. My husband is taking the exact same approach, so that works out very well for the two of us.

As for my extended family, I'd just as soon get nothing from them other than the pleasure of their company. But I know that's not going to happen; they're going to spend money on something for me and my husband. So we're going to diplomatically steer them to gift cards for Powell's Books, and Home Depot, businesses we will certainly patronize sooner or later. Although this candor may seem crass, we know our families well enough to know they'll be happy to getting us something we'll use and appreciate.

I have young family members who are pretty much deluged with gifts around the holidays. It's so depressing to see how jaded they are by the 25th present they open that I've given up buying them anything at all. Instead I've resolved to do things with them. I know from my own childhood that I can remember very few of the Christmas gifts I received. Most of those I can remember are books that I still own. But I remember many events that my aunts and uncles took me to. Their involvement in my life was more of a gift to me than any toy ever could have been, and I remember many of them fondly. So this is what I'm going to do with my nieces and nephews. The frugal upside is that I can almost certainly have a memorable day with them for less money than I would spend shopping for a soon-to-be-forgotten present and wrapping it up.

For my older relatives I'm going to cook or bake gifts, which I've already been told would be most welcome. If I didn't know that already, I would probably take the approach of asking them if there were anything they planned to buy for themselves in the near future, much as I've done with my own wish list. For other family members and friends, I've already got a number of handmade gift ideas.

I did want to make one gift recommendation for recent college grads and young people just setting up their first household. One of the very best purchases I made when I first left home was a set of four cloth napkins. More than twenty years later, I still have these napkins, and they get regular use. I highly recommend a gift of 4 to 6 high quality cloth napkins for young adults. Pick something attractive enough for every day use, but not overly fancy, and avoid very light colors, which show stains far too much. This gift has the potential to steer the habits of a young gift recipient towards a frugal path. The habit of using cloth napkins instead of paper will save not only scarce natural resources, but money too. I'm all in favor of gifts like this that may cost a little, but will let the gift recipient save money for decades to come. Who knows? Having those cloth napkins may even open their eyes to a wider world of frugality.

I also heard a great story about a young woman who got a college graduation gift from her father. It was a set of basic tools that he had taken the time to paint pink. His daughter wasn't a girlie-girl; the pink color was not there to accessorize a Barbie lifestyle. No, the father had a more clever motivation. He wanted his daughter to have a hammer, a set of wrenches and screwdrivers, etc. The pink paint would make the tools easy to find in any construction area and against almost any background, so it would be hard to misplace them. And he knew that tools are often borrowed and never returned. He knew that no one would ever forget who these tools belonged to, so there was no chance of "forgetting" to return any item borrowed from this set. Nor would any man deliberately purloin a pink monkey wrench - it just wouldn't do. I think this is a great example of a truly thoughtful gift that is sure to be very frugal over the long run for the gift recipient.

If gifts must be exchanged, then I'm all for practicality and frugality in gift giving. Give gifts only when you know they will be useful to the recipient. Don't be afraid to ask what will be most useful to them. Maybe they could use a gift card for the grocery store. Maybe a young person needs a few items for the kitchen. Maybe something they use on a regular basis has worn out or broken and needs replacement.

Most of all remember that the best gift we can give or receive is the gift of time, attention, and care from those we love and those who love us. These gifts cost us nothing at all, and cannot be bought for any price.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Year's Resolutions & the 2009 Wishlist

I never made New Year's resolutions when I was younger. It always seemed like a set up for backsliding, guilt, and disappointment. But a few years ago, I started looking at New Year's resolutions differently. Instead of promising to lose 15 pounds, exercise more often, or start flossing my teeth, I decided that I would begin to learn new skills, or add something to my homesteading ways.

Two years ago for New Year's I decided to learn how to bake bread. Now we eat nothing but homemade bread, and bread baking is part of my monthly routine that I take for granted. Last year I resolved that I would keep laying hens. Having four hens this past year was a great learning experience, and I never want to have a garden again without also having hens. I also learned to can this past summer, though that wasn't a formal New Year's resolution.

This coming year there are several skills or features I would like to add to my repertoire and mini-homestead. All of them have something to do with moving us towards greater self-sufficiency and will ultimately allow us to live a more frugal life. Anything fairly specific that I can do which will insulate us from the vagaries of the economic turmoil seems like a great idea these days.

I've already talked about adding another species to our budding homestead. I think what I've settled on is to add a worm bin, because it's a no-brainer, and also to work on adding rabbits for meat. That will involve building a tractor to keep them on our "pasture," and doing enough reading up over the next few months to prepare myself for the new additions. I'll also need to prepare myself for slaughtering them and processing them. I would like for us to have bees, too. But that will either have to wait another year, or my husband will have to make that his own project. I can only take on so many new critters at a time. Perhaps an item for 2010's resolution list.

It's also, finally, the year to put in an asparagus bed. I've waited years and years to do this. I had a cat for 17 years who loved, simply loved, asparagus. Had I started an asparagus bed, he would have found a way to kill it in the first tender year when nothing should be harvested. Dear creature that he was, we had to put him down this past April. He is missed, but we'll look forward to asparagus in his absence. We have a small but ideal space to put two or three raised asparagus beds, just behind our shed. Several other vegetables are to be given trial runs in my 2009 garden as well, including okra, Jerusalem artichokes, two types of eggplant, Brussels sprouts and some berries under and around our white pine tree.

So far these two tasks that I've set for myself are things I am eager to do. They will take effort, but not much self-discipline to put into practice. But there is one thing I've set myself to learn that I don't particularly relish. Sewing. I recognize that this skill is a useful one, but it's just not something I'm eager to learn or naturally inclined toward. But I'm taking up Sharon's competence project challenge, and I'm resolved to give it a go. Probably it will be best to get started on this very soon, while the weather is cold and I don't have outdoor tasks as ready made distractions. I even found a worthy frugal sewing project to get me started. I would really like to find a sewing mentor who can help me learn to use the sewing machine I have on semi-permanent loan.

We'll also be putting in a few fruit trees this spring in the locations where we chopped down nonproductive ornamentals this fall. We plan on two cherry trees and a dwarf apple tree, but we may yet cut down a spruce tree that is getting rather large and replace it with either a nut tree or a self-polinating pear tree. We still need to have the stumps of the old trees ground out before we plant. If we get around to it, we may also dynamite the forsythia out and replace it with some black raspberries. (I'm kidding about the dynamite, but that stuff will be damn difficult to remove.)

In general, I would like to try to do more bartering this coming year. So far I've done very little true bartering. More often I've given thank-you gifts to neighbors who have done us a good turn. My bread is good enough that I wouldn't be ashamed to sell it. I have an agreement in principle to barter some homemade bread for the pruning of our apple tree in the new year. I know enough about cooking to teach classes regularly. So maybe there's an exchange possible there somehow. And we'll have eggs from our laying hens again in the spring. Surely I could find ways to barter for some other services we will need.

One thing I would like to do but am unsure about is to participate in the Master Gardener's program in my region this coming year. I'm unsure about it because I don't even know if it's happening next year. There was no program in 2008 due to a glut of Master Gardeners. Even if there is a program, I don't know that I would be selected. There is a screening process, evidently. And it would be an ongoing time commitment, even after the classes are over and done with. The student Master Gardeners "pay" for their instruction with a agreement to volunteer for the counties that run the program. I think the number of volunteer hours is pretty reasonable, but I would need to double check what I'm committing myself to before I sign on the dotted line. My main reason for wanting to become a Master Gardener is to learn about pruning fruit trees, and to tap knowledge that is highly specific to gardening in my immediate area.

Ever participated in your county's Master Gardener program? I'd love to hear from you if you have!

So much for the at least somewhat realistic goals. On the wishlist is a greenhouse of some sort. It's unlikely to happen in 2009. We'll have a lot of other things on our plate, and there isn't much space to devote to a greenhouse on our modest lot. One of these years though, I would love to try a mobile greenhouse a la Eliot Coleman. I'll probably be thrilled if we manage to build a few modestly sized coldframes for winter salad greens.

So to sum up the resolutions list:

Meat rabbits on pasture
Asparagus beds
New vegetable trials in main garden, berries under white pine tree
Sewing (ugh!)
Fruit/nut trees
Do more bartering
Coldframes for winter greens
Master Gardener program?

-Wow. That turned out to be a much longer list than I thought it would be. Fortunately, several of these items are mostly once-and-done efforts. I'll use this blog to hold myself to these goals in the coming year.

What are your goals, hopes, dreams, plans for the coming year? What's the long-term vision that you want to serve with your goals?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Promise of Garlic

"Spring keeps her promises, no cold can keep her back."
- Natalie Merchant

I realize I never posted anything about getting our garlic into the ground in mid-October. But the sight of all the little garlic sprouts poking up above the first snow of the season this morning made me smile. For me, it's Spring's promise of good things to come, telling me to keep faith through the dark days of winter. Garlic doesn't mind the cold. Like any self-respecting bulb, it just hunkers down and waits for warm weather to resume where it left off in late fall.

It's far beyond time to get garlic into the ground in any part of the world that I'm familiar with, so I'll make a mental note to describe my garlic planting routine in detail next fall. Meanwhile, here are some more picture of my wintry garden.

A late groundfall apple dusted with snow - hint of color in a stark landscape

Icy patterns on the window of my hayframe

Critter tracks in wan morning sunlight

Pampas grass dusted with snow

Related posts:

Garlic Harvest
The Limits of Garlic

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Feed the Hungry

Many of us are keenly aware of how precarious our food supply is right now, at both the personal and national level. People are losing jobs, and food prices are still high. Conventional agriculture relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. When the price of oil bounces back up, it will once again be prohibitively expensive to fly and ship food from continent to continent. Way back in 2004, then-Secretary of US Health Tommy Thompson mused, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." Yikes.

It's scary. Even those of us who grow some of our own food and contribute to food banks often feel there's so very little we can do about food security. Well, there is one thing that is truly easy to do that can help alleviate world hunger. Play a word game on your computer.

Free rice is a minimalist website that offers an ongoing vocabulary test. For every word problem you correctly answer, the website will donate 20 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program. The costs are paid by the sponsors whose ads are remarkably unobtrusive on the gaming page. It costs you nothing but a few minutes of your time to contribute enough grains of rice to help feed a hungry person somewhere in the world. If English vocabulary isn't your strong suit, you can opt for vocabulary testing in another language, or get quizzed on your knowledge of chemistry, art, geography, or math. You may even learn a few things while you're at it.

I don't mean to trivialize hunger. We can't build a world of food security just by playing games on our computers. But it is one little thing we can do, and it's free and educational at the same time. So check out and help someone in need, for free.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sour Milk Potato Biscuit-Muffins

We returned from Thanksgiving travels to find nearly a half gallon of milk had gone sour in our fridge. Over the summer I wrote about using up sour milk in a chocolate zucchini cake. Remember: sour milk won't make you sick, and it's a great baking ingredient. I have shredded zucchini in the freezer, but I didn't feel like making chocolate cake yesterday morning. I was more in the mood for something savory. So I whipped up a batch of impromptu sour milk biscuit-muffins.

I'm a scavenger in the kitchen, in terms of both recipes and ingredients. Besides the sour milk, I had two items I wanted to use up: leftover mashed potatoes and an abundance of cheese in the fridge. So I looked at two different biscuit recipes, one using sour milk, the other using mashed potatoes and cheese, and combined them willy-nilly. Then I doubled the recipes since I had a lot of sour milk to use up. Here's what I came up with.

Sour Milk Potato Biscuit-Muffins

4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons cold butter (shortening would also work)
1 cup leftover mashed potatoes
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) sharply flavored cheese, shredded or crumbled
2 cups soured milk (buttermilk would also work)

In a large mixing bowl I combined the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt until well blended. Then I worked in the cold butter with my fingertips until the pieces were very small. Next the leftover mashed potatoes and the crumbled cheese were stirred in with a spoon, and finally the sour milk was stirred in to bring the dough together. (My mashed potatoes had been made with cream and accented with scallions.)

This produced a soft dough that didn't look like it would roll out very well. One of the recipes called for cooking the biscuits in muffin tins, so that's what I decided to do. I greased two muffin tins and added scoops of dough with a large soup spoon. It was enough dough for almost two dozen biscuit-muffins. I put a few ice cubes in the one empty space of the muffin tin so that the grease in that one wouldn't burn. I think I could just as easily have scooped them with an ice cream scoop and baked them on baker's parchment on an open baking tray. I also think I could have added a good deal more cheese.

These were baked for 20 minutes in a 400F oven. Their irregularly textured tops browned up beautifully. I probably could have encouraged even better browning had I brushed the tops with a little extra sour milk before baking them.

They were very tasty just slightly cooled and eaten with an extra pat of butter! We each had to have two, and were tempted to have a third, with our morning cuppa. I now have another recipe in my arsenal to deal with sour milk, something which I simply threw out in my pre-frugality days. Incidentally, this would also be a good post-Thanksgiving recipe for using up excess leftover mashed potatoes.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Following Up Some Experiments

I like experimenting. It's a good way for me to learn things directly and tangibly. Recently I posted about two experiments, and it's time to follow up with some preliminary results.

The first experiment was my hayframe, a small rudimentary coldframe made out of bales of hay and an old window. I planted arugula sylvetta in the hayframe, much later in the season than I should have done in my area. But arugula is a remarkably hardy plant. (Delicious too.) And I'm happy to report that despite very cold days and nights (daytime highs in the 30s, overnight lows in the high teens F), the arugula has germinated. I'm so tickled by this. We'll see if it can do more than germinate over the frigid months ahead.

Unfortunately, it also appears that the bales of hay have proven irresistible to some small members of the family rodentia. I suspect field mice. The first tip off was my cat crouching expectantly beside the hay bales. The more obvious hint though are the holes dug into the ground in the middle of the hayframe. At least they haven't nibbled the tiny sprouts yet. If I actually get something edible before March I will be ecstatic. I know that eventually the arugula will grow and flourish. I'm just eager to see whether it will produce a true wintertime crop.

The second experiment had to do with making apple cider vinegar from the spent apple pomace collected after our cider pressing. I collected about a gallon of apple pomace, put it in a large glass jar, filled it up with tap water, and then tied some cheese cloth around the mouth of the jar. The reading I've done on this said that the jar should be kept somewhere very dark and reasonably warm, with good air circulation. Unfortunately, we don't have any very dark place with good air circulation in our home that is also warm. So I stuck it in the basement, which hovers around 52 degrees or so. I also read that acetobacillus bacteria can produce vinegar directly, without the need for alcohol produced by yeast.

I can now say with certainty that something is happening in that jar. About three weeks ago there was a very powerful sweet apple scent coming from the jar. Ten days ago the sweetness was fading and a sharper smell was present. After we came back from our Thanksgiving travels, I found evidence of more activity: a ring and small dried puddle of liquid that had apparently overflowed the jar in a moment of bacterial exuberance. (That's my stash of homemade canned tomato sauce in the background of the picture.) The smell is now obviously that of vinegar. I plan to let it keep doing its thing for at least another month. But now that I know this works, I will definitely make more batches of homemade apple cider vinegar next year. I just need to find or buy more large jars.

The most exciting take away lesson here is that I could start a batch of free apple cider vinegar anytime I had a pile of apple trimmings. I don't have to wait on the annual apple pressing for a pile of pomace. So if I make a big apple pie, the cores and peels could be turned into a batch of vinegar with virtually no effort on my part. If you eat one apple a day, I suppose you could freeze the cores until you had a good sized stash and then try this when you're ready. A few caveats only: glass or ceramic jars are recommended. Metal and plastic containers are specifically not recommended. And also, if you ever press your own cider, never use containers or equipment for cider making which has had anything to do with any type of vinegar. You don't want to introduce acetobacillus into your cider. So keep your vinegar equipment and your cider equipment completely separate.

Related post:

Homemade Apple Cider Vinegar Report

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A 10-Day Supply of Moisturizer

I'm in mind of tiny tips these days, during the season of cold weather. All sorts of small economies that I didn't employ over the summer are coming back to me. But today's tiny tip can be used year round. It will seem like old hat to the veteran frugal folk. I offer it as a hint for those new to this path.

Use up every drop of your toiletries and cosmetics. These products are, almost without exception, wildly expensive. The high end cosmetics lines frequently tempt customers with tiny samples of their products sized to last for ten days or less. And yet, how often does a similar amount simply get tossed away because it's not easy to get it out of the package? If it's enough to bribe you into making an expensive purchase, surely it's enough to use up.

I use a mid-priced moisturizer that comes with a pump dispenser. When I get near the end of the bottle, the pump no longer works so well. Yet there's still quite a lot of moisturizer in the bottle. I counted this time, and I got enough moisturizer out of the bottle after the pump no longer worked to last me ten more days.

Consider the price of any cosmetic or toiletry you use. Go ahead and actually crunch the numbers, using the unit price of the product. I spend about $10 for a bottle of my moisturizer, which contains only 70 ml. You know what that works out to? Almost $34 per cup! Now granted, a little of this particular stuff goes a long way. One bottle lasts me about three months. So let's estimate that I use only 11 cents' worth of this stuff every day($10 bottle/90 days). (The application cost of your cosmetics is another number worth crunching.) If I throw the bottle out when it will no longer easily dispense the product to me, I'm throwing away $1.10.

Visualize this
: would you throw a dollar and a dime into your garbage can? Didn't think so.

So what to do? Well, in this case it's pretty easy. I take a knife to the plastic bottle and scoop out the rest of the product, as needed, with my fingers. I coax the little bit of moisturizer stuck in the pump tube out by smacking the bottom end into my palm. The cut open bottle stays in a ziploc bag for the few days it takes for me to use it up. I know women can be very particular about what skin care and cosmetic products they'll use. I settled on this moisturizer mostly for how it performed on my skin, but also partly based on its plastic bottle. I knew that I could cut it open and use up every last bit of it.

In the past I've tried and liked moisturizers from department store cosmetic lines. It always infuriated me that I couldn't get every bit of the product out of glass bottles. So I gave up on those. If you're still shopping around for your preferred toiletry items, consider the packaging as one factor in your decision. I hope it will go without saying that a $10 bottle of moisturizer is not necessarily inferior to a $35 bottle that will last you the same amount of time. Put aside the marketing, the hype, and the image, and select something that will work for your skin without breaking the bank.

If you are stuck on a product sold in a glass bottle, at least you can recycle the glass. Use a cotton swab to retrieve the last bits of product before you do so. It's not perfect, but it's better than not making any attempt to use up the product completely. If you're really stuck on using high-end skin care products that come in glass bottles, you might try being a squeaky wheel about it the next time you visit the cosmetics counter. Given the state of the economy, companies selling luxury goods just might be in the mood to listen.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cheap Thrills

Part of frugality is learning to adapt to the opportunities and the resources all around you. There are various advantages and disadvantages available to rural, suburban, and urban dwellers, and to people of every age range. As someone living on the rural/suburban fringe, nature, or something quite like it, is one of the resources available to me. I can forage for wild greens and berries, and many friends and neighbors have sufficient space for fruit trees from which they may or may not harvest. There's enough wild game in my area that we could substantially supplement our diet with venison and rabbit if we chose to hunt.

But nature offers more than just the chance to feed myself cheaply. The natural world is an ongoing education too. We don't have children, but boy could we come up with some homeschooling lessons if we did. This lovely piece of insect architecture materialized on a branch directly over our driveway this summer. That's a bald-faced hornet's nest.

Bald-faced hornets are actually misnamed. They're really a species of North American wasp with a range that covers most of the US and parts of Canada. The salient facts to me though are that these creatures are aggressive defenders of their nests, and they can sting repeatedly (often on the face) without losing their stinger. It sure made us nervous for about five minutes. Then we reminded ourselves that the bald-faced hornets were busy - very busy, in fact - minding their own business, and so long as we did the same, our paths would never cross. We left them to it.

Then in mid-October, we had a large vehicle pull into our driveway. With alarm I watched it plow right into the branch holding that nest. I waited to see whether an angry swarm of hornets would emerge to unleash hot vengeance on anyone nearby. Fortunately, mercifully, the hive had departed. We picked up the fallen nest and brought it to the porch.

Eventually, after admiring the whole nest for several weeks, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to cut it open and have a look inside. All my attempts to photograph it have been stymied by the infinite gradations of gray that are present in the fabric of the nest. Here's the best photo I was able to take.

This sort of construction just amazes me. I studied the layers and details of this hornet's nest for about an hour after I cut it open. I still occasionally look over it in amazement. I feel really lucky to have this sort of entertainment and education available to me at absolutely no cost. True, I don't know the scientific names of the materials and different parts, or exactly how the hornets formed their home. I could learn those things from a book, no doubt. But I now have some things that are better than book learning. I have a profound sense of wonder, the ability to actually handle this object, and direct contact with this impressive feat of construction by one of the "lower orders" of the animal kingdom.

Oftentimes I find that frugality is not about making more money or even saving more money. It's not about paying off debt, making the smartest investments, or finding the best deal on something I want to buy. It's about rediscovering the value of stuff that is already available to me, in many cases for free. In those moments when I immerse myself in the richness all around me, money becomes irrelevant. And those are moments worth cultivating.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Harvest Meal: Vegetable Soup with Lamb Stock

Having made lamb stock the day before leaving home for the Thanksgiving holiday, soup was obviously going to be on the menu that night. The nice thing about soup is that you really don't need a recipe, just some likely ingredients and a tasty liquid. The homemade lamb stock met the latter requirement. A little late season harvesting from the garden and a quick rummage through the potato bin met the former.

Starting at the beginning, I first cooked a diced garden leek and a clove of our homegrown garlic in a little olive oil. Then I added small handful of spelt berries. (Spelt is a close relative of wheat, and we've come to love its chewy texture and nutty goodness in soups. The berries inevitably end up at the bottom of the pot and each bowl, since they're heavy. But that just means that some of the best bits are saved for last.) Once the spelt berries were coated with the olive oil, I added freshly degreased lamb stock and an equal amount of water, along with a few sprigs of thyme from the garden, and let that simmer away for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile I scrubbed a small pile of our La Ratte potatoes. These are a yellow skinned fingerling type potato that somewhat resemble the Yukon Golds. Chopped into bite sized pieces, they cook very fast. Their waxy texture helps them stand up well in soupy environments. They went into the pot next.

Earlier in the day I had harvested the absolute last of the season's Tuscan kale. The crinkly leaves were all droopy, and had blanched slightly in some areas. The plants were forming their own anti-freeze. The large bunch that I cleaned and parboiled was enough for our soup, with a large ziploc bag left over for the freezer. This kale is sturdy enough to retain a nice texture through freezing and even subsequent cooking. It's become one of our favorite vegetables for this reason, among others.

Diced carrot and some of the garden kale were added in their turn to simmer. When they were tender, the soup was ready to be served. We ladled up generous bowls and garnished with a light grating of parmesan cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The intensely flavored lamb stock, even at half strength, provided a hearty meat flavor in this otherwise vegetarian soup. It's a wonderful feeling to draw in together in a snug home, over a warm meal of homegrown and homemade food, against the rising cold and dark of winter. The soup warmed our bones, and put us in mind of all that we have to be thankful for.

The ingredients for this soup overlap those in the last harvest meal I posted about, the fusilli with Tuscan kale in a creamy tomato sauce. But the different preparation and a few different ingredients disguised the similarities very well. We're not even close to getting sick of garlic, leeks, or Tuscan kale.

Other harvest meals:
Saag Paneer
Garden Pizza
Peanut Noodles with Garden Vegetables

Egg & Chard Curry
Fusilli with Tuscan Kale in a Creamy Tomato Sauce
Pumpkin-Sage Penne Pasta
Kale & Barley Soup
Carrot and Chili Pepper Escabeche
Arugula Noodles
Garlic Scape Carbonara
Vegetarian Futomaki