Monday, June 30, 2008

Garden Seeds - Swapping with Other Gardeners

Gardening is a good frugal strategy if it's something you enjoy doing. I take great pleasure in gardening, most of the time. When it's hot and muggy and buggy, it's less of a joy. But nothing beats harvesting food you've grown with your own hands.

Seed saving is a great strategy to save money in an already frugal endeavor. There are so many particulars to saving seed from the huge variety of cultivated plants, that I can offer very few how to's. There are entire books devoted just to saving seeds from the plants we eat, and other forms of propagation as well. Sometimes it's obvious when a seed is ready to be harvested if you simply observe the plant closely. Culinary sage, poppies, beans, kale, parsnips and many other plants form seed heads or pods that dry out and release their seeds freely when they're ready. With other plants it's trickier.

Saving seed not only saves you money, but it also acts as a selection process for your own climate zone or even microclimate. You'll only get seeds from plants that have done well right where you grew them, or where they volunteered. Thus, those seeds have an excellent chance of working for you again the next year. If you live just on the edge of where a plant is able to grow, you may even develop your own cultivars by repeatedly saving seed from the plants that have done well for you from year to year.

Yesterday, I harvested seed from some parsnips I left to overwinter and from my beloved kale lacinato. Both of these plants produced seed abundantly for me. And parsnip seed has a very short shelf life. That means I have more seed than I need. A good website I've found to share seeds freely with other gardeners is It's free to register and become a member. Once you do that you can set up an exchange page with lists of seeds or plants you either have to share or are hoping to trade for. No money changes hands for these trades, which are done by mail. Of course, there's always a slight risk that you'll get burned when proposing or accepting a trade. No one can guarantee that the other person will come through with the seeds they agree to send you. But gardeners by and large are honest folk. I've traded about five times through Gardenweb, and have never been burned.

Check out the Gardenweb site, whether you're an old green thumb or a novice gardener. There's tons of information and expertise there, in addition to thousands of potential seed trading partners.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fewer Vehicles = A Cheaper Auto Insurance Bill

We sold off some of our vehicles this past week. I'm almost afraid to admit just how bad it was, but we had five - FIVE! - insured motor vehicles. Hear me out though!

One was my motor-scooter which had been my main vehicle when we lived in the city. I didn't have a car at the time. Although I tried to sell it before we moved, it just never happened. Despite the fact that I was hardly driving it at all, I still had to pay some insurance for it. Pennsylvania makes it very hard to put a vehicle "in storage" from a legal perspective. This was obviously a candidate for selling. As much as I loved it, and as great as its gas mileage was, I need a car to cover the distances from where we live and to do the things I need to do.

Vehicle #2 is my car, a cheap Hyundai that I bought used and paid cash for.

Vehicle #3 is my husband's car, a more expensive VW that we also bought used and paid cash for.

Vehicle #4 is his old Honda, which he bought before we even met. It's been in another state (where my husband spends a significant amount of time for his work) for about two years. He uses that car to get around when he's away on business travel.

Vehicle #5 is our 1992 beater pick up truck, also bought used for cash. We need this for hauling stuff to our property where we're gearing up to build our dream home. It's also hugely convenient for hardware store runs, or picking up free mulch at the county recycling center.

Although we have great auto insurance, our bill was high with this many vehicles. The most obvious, if painful, step was to get rid of my motor-scooter. After a post on craigslist, I got many, many phone calls, and finally one from someone living in a major city who was serious. She came that evening with a truck and paid me in cash!

The second vehicle that sold is the old Honda. Someone my husband works with had been interested in buying it for its good fuel economy. So after agreeing on a price, my husband drove his VW to the other state and sold the Honda. That means we're down to one car at home now, plus the beater truck. I'll have to share my car with my husband. We drive the truck only when we need its hauling capabilities; it gets pretty bad mileage.

Two vehicles sold in one week! We got them off our auto insurance policy right away, and also found that the policy on the VW is now cheaper because it's in another state. Our total monthly savings comes to over $108! That's whopping $1272 per year, which will get plowed into accelerated payments on our mortgage. And the bulk of the money we got from the sales will also be a sizable extra principle payment next month. We'll keep a small part of the money around as emergency cash.

I wish we could get by with no cars at all. But with no services within walking distance of our home, and our serious winters, that just isn't an option right now.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Dinner from the Garden

Yesterday afternoon was harvest time in my garden. And last night's dinner was a big pile of Swiss chard prepared as an impromptu version of Indian saag paneer. It's been a hell of a lot of work putting in this year's garden. So I definitely appreciate the meals I get out of our backyard. Gardening may or may not not end up being the cheapest option for feeding yourself this year, though I suspect that it increasingly will be the obvious choice if we, collectively, wish to survive difficult economic times. Like the British during and after World War II, I think many people in the developed countries of the world are going to find it expedient to rely more on themselves than we have done in recent decades.

But I didn't mean to turn this into a political commentary. I wanted to talk about my lacinato kale and the rainbow chard in the picture above. Isn't it gorgeous? There's some enjoyment in the physical effort of the garden when the weather is pleasant. And there's sensual pleasure of eating truly fresh and healthy food. But as much as I'm a foodie, the greatest satisfaction for me is in the pride of achievement, in knowing that I grew this, that my effort produced this food in its entirety, rather than just preparing something that I purchased. Two of those three different kinds of enjoyment can't be bought for love or money. It's sometime possible to find incredibly fresh produce. But no one can buy me the enjoyment of working with my hands and back in my own garden. No one can buy me the satisfaction of seeing the results of my own labor on my own dinner plate.

So yesterday I harvested a fairly large amount of lacinato kale. If I'd found it in the store, it probably would have been about three or four bunches' worth. After picking it all, I washed it to remove any traces of a homemade bug spray, and then blanched it, shocked it, drained it, chopped it, and froze it in bags. It's a fair amount of work, no doubt about it. But there's a whole other level of satisfaction that comes of knowing I've got green vegetables put away for winter. Kale freezes very, very well.

The rainbow chard was harvested for immediate consumption. It too needed a good deal of washing before I could cook with it. I started with a sliced onion in cooking oil, then added some minced garlic. Then I chopped up the stalks of all the different colors of chard and added those. They need more cooking than the leafy parts of the plant. At this point, it looked like I had a party in my skillet. I added kosher salt and a generous amount of garam masala (an Indian spice mixture) and let that cook while I dealt with the leafy bits. After roughly chopping the leaves, I put them in a large bowl in the microwave, still damp from the washing, and cooked them down for 2 minutes. Letting the leaves sit until they cooled a bit let me press out a great deal of the moisture. Then the leaves were added to the skillet and cooked down with the spices. I added about 1/3 of a cup of Glen Muir fire-roasted tomatoes, and let that cook gently. After about 20 minutes I tasted to adjust the seasonings and added a few generous scoops of cottage cheese. I served the mixed greens and cheese in sourdough crepes. It was delicious!

The kale I grew from seed, but I bought the chard as seedlings when most of my chard seeds failed to germinate. I made a mistake in laying out the two species very close together in the garden. I need to spray my kale with a homemade, nontoxic pesticide to keep it from being eaten by bugs. I would like to be able to use the same spray on my chard, even though they have different pests. But unfortunately, the chard can't stand up to this spray as well as the kale and cabbages can. My first application caused the chard leaves to literally curl up and die. Now I have to take pains not to spray the chard that is interplanted with my kale when I treat those plants. This is no easy task since they are closely spaced and the kale needs to be liberally doused with this stuff at least every 10 days as new leaves continue to form. Next year, they won't be anywhere near each other in the garden, and I'll be able to spray away without damaging the chard. Live and learn.

I'll post a recipe for my homemade bug spray in the next few days. It's cheap, easy to make, effective, and not scary at all when you think about it being on your food.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Parvati Solar Cooker, 1st report

A short while ago I decided to build the Parvati parabolic solar cooker, which I first heard about at Homegrown Evolution. Made from cardboard, glue, aluminum foil, and some twist-ties, it cost me nothing more than a few hours of my time and pennies' worth of materials. You can find a pattern for making a parabolic solar cooker here.

Apparently, tall and narrow pots are best with parabolic solar cookers like the Parvati. This is just the opposite of what is recommended for solar box cookers, which work best with short, squat pots and pans. In both cases, black metallic cooking vessels are recommended. Fortunately, just about the time I finished my Parvati cooker, I was given the chance to look over a box of kitchen equipment that a family friend was getting rid of. In it I found an old fashioned coffee percolator pot, which was higher than it was wide, and not too tall. I spray painted it black.

I didn't have much to go on when it came to the actual cooking. I was waiting on a solar cookbook from the inter-library loan program, but I had finished the cooker and the coffee pot was ready to go. I decided to make an experiment on a mostly sunny day. The experiment would consist of taking a shot in the dark with 2 cups of basmati rice. I can't say the cooking was a resounding success, but I think it's worth making a report to illustrate what went well, and where the obvious mistakes were made.

I put two cups of rice in the coffee pot and rinsed it with a few changes of water. I poured off most of the water and added back three cups of water. I put the lid on the pot, and put the pot in the solar cooker, with it aimed at the sun.

The temperature outside was about 80 degrees when the rice began to cook at 11:30 am. I decided to take regular measurements of the temperature with my cooking thermometer. After half an hour the temperature of the water inside the pot was 108. At 12:20 it was 135, at 12:50 - 156 degrees, and at 1:45 it was 170 degrees. Then I had to go run an errand. I got back at 3:20 and the thermometer registered 192 degrees. Just 20 degrees shy of boiling in an unsealed solar cooker on a partly cloudy day! I had shifted the cooker slightly a couple of times to track the sun across the sky.

By the third temperature check, the delicious popcorn-like aroma of basmati rice was wafting out of the cooker. Flies buzzed around, drawn by the scent. But there was no way they were going to even think about landing on the coffee pot; it was far too hot. Instead, they buzzed around ineffectually, perching sometimes on the rim of the cooker. I imagine they were pretty well blinded by the concentrated rays of the sun anytime they got near the inside of the cooker.

After four hours in the solar cooker, the temperature of my rice was 192 degrees F. Using a hotpad, I picked up the coffee pot and carried it inside, where I eagerly removed the lid. Let's just say I'm going to need to do some further experimentation. The rice was indeed cooked. But I probably should have stirred it once or twice during the cooking process, or perhaps allowed the rice a 20-minute soak. The rice on top was fluffy to the point of being waterlogged, while underneath were small grains that hadn't absorbed enough liquid.

But I certainly learned that the parabolic cooker works well with the spray painted coffee pot, even on a partly cloudy day. The heat built quickly at first and then rose steadily. Getting the temperature up to 140 degrees quickly is important, because at that temperature, most food borne pathogens are knocked out of commission. While a few bacteria can survive at that temperature, they certainly won't be thriving or multiplying. I also learned that burning food is not going to happen with a solar cooker. This may not be a fast or fool-proof cooking method. It may not work for all kinds of cooking, and it may not work in my area during all parts of the year. But as a low-effort, low-input source of cooked food, I think it's worth a little more experimentation.

In the meantime, my inter-library loan request has come in. I'll be reading up on solar cooking advice from someone who purports to know. We have overcast weather predicted for the next few days. But the next time the weather's clear, I'm giving this solar cooking thing another shot. Stay tuned for further reports.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How to Save a Bundle in the Laundry Room

Frugality is often unglamorous and repetitive. It's thrilling to save hundreds of dollars in one fell swoop with big purchases, such as a car or a chest freezer. The more difficult struggle is to maintain frugal practices in our everyday lives, saving small amounts of money here and there. Though these little efforts and little savings aren't often immediately apparent in our pocketbooks, the cumulative effect overtime can make a huge difference to an annual household budget.

So today I want to focus on the laundry room. I've been doing a lot of laundry lately, and it occurred to me that it might be useful to discuss the several ways I save money when doing this chore. We're fortunate to have a laundry room in the first place, though it's not large by any means. I've heard of many areas where hanging laundry up to dry outside is either expressly forbidden by evil Home Owners' Associations (HOA), or subtly discouraged by neighbors who think a laundry line lowers property values, or else just looked down upon as "trashy." While I think all of these attitudes are ridiculous, I also know there's a very easy alternative: hang your laundry up to dry inside.

First I should mention that a frugal approach to laundry (as with so many other things) requires a little bit more attention, effort, and planning. Since I air dry all my laundry inside the house, I can really only manage one load of laundry per day. We simply don't have the room to air dry more than one load at a time, and it takes at least 12 hours for a load to dry. So it's best if I stay on top of this chore. If a whole lot of laundry somehow piles up, it takes several days to work through it.

Here's what my laundry room looks like:
You can see that there are rubber-coated wire racks on one side, above the washer and dryer. And on the other side I've strung up two short laundry lines, one above the other. At the far end of the room, there's a small gap between the edge of the dryer and the wall, with the shelving overhanging the gap. These wire racks, and laundry lines, along with one folding wooden laundry rack, are where I dry all my laundry. There's a window in the room which I keep open during the summer, but the laundry dries just fine in the winter time too. You may notice that there's a button down shirt hanging in the gap between the wall and the dryer. That fortuitous gap makes it easy to just dry the shirt and then either hang it up or take it to be ironed.

I do use the dryer with each load of laundry, but only when the laundry has fully air dried. I put a load or two at a time in the dryer and run it on the unheated "air fluff" cycle for about 10 minutes. This uses very, very little electricity, and all my laundry gets nicely softened. No scratchy, stiff towels for us! You can see the blue dryer ball on top of the machine. I use this to help soften the laundry during the summer. In winter I will use a fabric softener sheet to control static electricity. These can be used several times each before they are depleted. I calculate that air drying my laundry saves me about 75 cents per load.

Another way I save money in the laundry room is with homemade laundry detergent. Trent at The Simple Dollar has a great tutorial on making your own detergent. It's easy and fun in a science experiment sort of way, and it saves me about $45 per year. Kids would really get a kick out of mixing up a big bucket of this gelatinous slime. Making laundry detergent is especially cheap for us because we get the main ingredient - bar soap - for free. My husband travels very frequently for work and often stays in hotels. He's always bringing home bars of bath soap and little bottles of shampoo. I take a few of these bars and mix up a batch of laundry detergent a couple times per year. I choose unscented bars and then add some essential oils I have on hand for making solid perfumes. So I can decide what our laundry detergent smells like. Usually I choose lavender, but I've also enjoyed a blend of lemongrass and grapefruit.

One blunder I should confess to in the laundry room is that I paid good money for those laundry lines you see on the left side of the room. This was a newbie frugalite error. While the motivation to air dry my laundry was a good one, I wasn't yet in the creative, do-it-yourself-for-less frame of mind that I now inhabit as my natural medium. I paid at least $15 for those two lines, and possibly as much as $20; I really can't say for sure. I reasoned at the time that the savings in electricity would quickly pay for the purchase, and that is correct. I'm sure by now I have recouped the cost of the purchase. But I would never do the same thing today. Instead, I'd just go to the hardware store and buy four sturdy hooks that can screw into wood. Along with a few feet of zip cord the hooks would have done the same job and cost only a few dollars at most. It's true that the fancy store-bought laundry lines can retract into the base units, but I never retract them anyway. Lesson learned: always consider if there's a better and cheaper way to pursue a frugal practice.

You probably can't distinguish the clothespins I use on the wire racks, but they're the old-fashioned wooden kind. These are worthwhile purchases. Under no circumstances should you buy the cheap plastic kind of clothespins. They break easily, turning into junk in a matter of months. The wooden pins will last a lifetime.

Hanging up a load of laundry may sound like a chore, and I'll admit that it takes a little bit more time than moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. But not by much. Because I hang my laundry up right in the laundry room itself, it only takes me about five minutes. It would take longer if I were hanging it up outside. Putting wet laundry into the dryer probably takes the better part of a minute, so the difference in time is only about 4 or 5 minutes, using my method. If I save 75 cents in 5 minutes, that translates into an hourly wage of $9 per hour, tax free. It's not the best hourly wage, but it's not bad. Another way to look at it is that I save about $2.25 per week (doing an average of three loads per week). That's a $117 savings per year, and I only do laundry for one and a half adults. (My husband does some laundry on the road when he travels.) If electricity prices go up - and that's likely - the air drying method remains essentially free.

Another bonus of hanging laundry up to dry is that as I handle each separate item, I notice if there's a stain on a piece of clothing that hasn't come out in the wash. If I were to throw it all in the dryer, not only would I likely miss the stain, but the heat of the dryer would also set some kinds of stains, making them much more difficult to get out later.

I'll close with a frugal laundry room option that I haven't yet tried. I read about it over at Homegrown Evolution. The urban couple writing that blog points out that dryer lint can be used, along with cardboard egg cartons and candle stubs, to make fire-starters. Good for campers and survivalists!

Monday, June 9, 2008

It's Tea Time - Sun Tea Time

I'm a devoted tea drinker. I can't get my morning properly started without it. I know the difference between a teapot and a tea kettle, and I know that hot tea will not brew in a paper cup with kinda hot water. Most of the year, a couple of blisteringly hot cups of tea are welcome in the morning. But right now, I'm waking up to temperatures in the high 70s Fahrenheit (mid 20s Celsius), and the mercury only rises through the day.

So I made my first annual batch of sun tea a few days ago. The process is simple: just put teabags or loose tea in a large glass jar and put the jar somewhere where it'll get a strong blast of sunlight for several hours. The heat of the sun warms the water and brews your tea for you. After that, you put the jar in your refrigerator and enjoy the tea chilled. It keeps for several days and you don't even need to strain it if you don't want to.

Sun tea is one of those tiny tips that I employ to save money. But it's a little unusual in that it saves me tiny amounts of money in several ways. The first and most obvious is that I don't have to pay for any energy to boil water. Not a huge savings, granted. But in the summer months, I also save a little because the heat of that boiling water would make my house warmer too. So if I'm running any fans or air conditioning, I get a tiny savings that way. Thirdly, it seems that I get more tea out of the same amount of loose tea or tea bags when compared to brewing it in a pot. Maybe it's the slow and steady brewing done by the sun, but I can get more than a gallon of sun tea from just three tea bags or a generous tablespoon of loose tea. Ratchet up another savings by making my ingredients stretch farther. Finally, I save (potentially) another tiny amount on cooling by keeping myself cool with a cold drink instead of a hot one.

I have two large glass containers for sun tea. One is specifically a sun tea jug, which I got for 75 cents at a charity thrift store. The other is just a very large (1 1/2 gallon) glass jar with a screw top lid. I picked it up in a bulk foods store for less than $3. I don't need anything else, other than tap water and tea leaves to make the most necessary of morning beverages.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


No, this post isn't going to be a stab at our Glorious Leader. It's about a quaint but refreshing beverage that was commonly prepared and drunk in colonial times. Shrub is a vinegary fruit syrup. It is sweetened with sugar, but still retains a sour punch even when diluted in ice water. If that sounds a little odd to you, it is, but I can assure you that it is also tasty and strangely addicting after a while.

Shrub can be made from nearly any fruit that you have in abundance. It was usually made from delicate summertime fruits like berries or stone fruits, which could not be stored without some sort of processing. Apples and pears, both late fall crops, could be kept for months in cold storage. So these were not commonly converted into shrub, though they were often made into cider, the cooler temperatures being ideal for slow fermentation.

So shrub was prepared in summertime, and also consumed in summertime, though it may have been stored from one year to the next. The most strenuous farm labor, harvesting the hay, had to be performed during the hottest months of the year. Shrub, which contained both sugar and vinegar, cooled and refreshed the men during this difficult work, and it also replenished their electrolytes so that they didn't get heat stroke.

The basic process for making shrub is this: Wash any excess dirt off your fruit, and if it contains pits or large seeds remove these. Put the fruit into a large glass or ceramic bowl and cover it with vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is cheapest and works fine. In the colonies apple cider vinegar would probably have been used. If the fruit floats in the vinegar, put a plate on top of it to weigh it down and keep it submerged. Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap and let it soak for 24 hours at room temperature.

The next day, mash the fruit gently with a potato masher or a wooden spoon. Then pass the fruit and vinegar through the fine plate of a food mill and into a large soup pot. Bring the liquid and pulp to a simmer and add a good quantity of sugar. You will probably want at least 1 cup of sugar for every 2 cups of liquid, but it will depend on how sweet your fruit was. Heat the liquid until the sugar is dissolved. Now you can take a sample and dilute about 3 tablespoons in a pint glass full of water and ice. If it's far too sour, add a little more sugar and taste again until you're pleased with the tangy-sweet flavor. If you wish, you may strain the solids out of the syrup.

At this point you may can the syrup as you would any jam or vegetable. Alternatively, you can pour the syrup into cleaned glass condiment jars and freeze it. Once you have opened the jar again, store it in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least six months. When you're ready to serve shrub, shake up the jar to include some of the fine fruit solids in each drink. They're good for you!

A few notes on the recipe...If you use apple cider vinegar in shrub, keep in mind that apple cider vinegar - or apple cider - was commonly prescribed for constipation. Too much apple cider in any form will give you a case of the trots, though it won't hurt you or your digestion in any significant way. You'd probably have to drink an awful lot of shrub to get this effect, but I thought I'd mention this in case you prepare it this way and then think you're ill due to poor processing. It's just a natural attribute of apple cider. Also, if you are diabetic, shrub can be made with the vinegar alone and then sweetened serving by serving with artificial sweetener. It won't form a proper syrup without the sugar, but it can be canned just the same as the sweetened form.

I made shrub late last summer from home grown watermelon, and have been drinking it this year as I do the heavy planting in the garden. It is a very refreshing beverage. I love the peppy feeling I get from drinking it. It's also far better for me than soda, and almost certainly cheaper too. Even if the raw materials cost is equal to what I have paid for store-brand soda on sale, there's the transportation cost of getting all that soda home. With shrub I only pay to transport the vinegar and sugar, both of which get diluted significantly and go into many, many servings. Soda is mostly water, which is very heavy and therefore expensive to transport. With shrub, the water comes very nearly free out of my tap. (We have a well.)

This year I have both watermelon and cantaloupe planted in the garden, both good candidates for a batch of shrub. We won't get anywhere near enough raspberries to store any. But if that decrepit plum tree on our property produces an edible crop of fruit, I may be making shrub from plums this year.

If you have access to free or very cheap fruit this summer, consider making your own batch of shrub. Consider gleaning fruits if your neighbors have fruit trees or bushes that they do not harvest from. It will be a novelty beverage to serve to company, but I suspect you'll end up enjoying most of it yourself. Given our $50 per month grocery challenge, I'm very glad to have stored this beverage last year. It means that cutting out my most costly food vice (soda) from the budget isn't much of a hardship.

If you should wish to try a commercially prepared shrub before deciding whether to invest the time preparing it for yourself, the Tait Farm in Pennsylvania markets their delicious varieties of shrub online. They also have recipes for using shrub syrup in other ways than as a beverage.

Bibendum est!

So Many Eggs

About a month and a half ago, we had some new additions to our mini modern homestead. Four Red Star hens, at the retirement age of just two years. We got them from a small farmer not too far away who needed to reduce her flock size. From talking to other poultry farmers, I knew that the eggs from mature hens would be large - much larger than normal grade AA large eggs from the supermarket. I'd also been told that two-year-old laying hens wouldn't produce as many eggs per week as younger hens. That sounded just fine by me as I like to have an egg for breakfast and I didn't think I'd mind having one slightly larger than usual.

We built a mobile coop for the girls, along with a mobile pen, just 5'x6'. We used a great deal of material pulled from dumpsters at residential building sites, which still exist here in southeastern Pennsylvania. (The housing bust isn't as bad here as many places.) The coop is small but contains a roosting bar and a single nesting box, lined with hay, where the girls can lay their eggs. Each morning I move the pen to a fresh patch of our untreated lawn, refill their feeder and waterer, and then move the coop into place alongside it. I release the coop door with a drawstring and the girls rush out for their breakfast. The pen offers shelter from rain and too much sun, but the partial mesh siding also allows sunlight and cooling breezes.

Having hens has changed our household routine a little. The care of the chickens takes very little of my time. Ten minutes in the morning and just two or three at night when I secure them in the coop against predators. Certainly keeping the hens takes us much less time than walking a dog would. What has changed is that many of our kitchen scraps now go directly to the girls instead of the compost bin. Some things that we wouldn't have composted are happily devoured by the hens, like cheese rinds and fish skins. The hens love many sorts of fresh greens. So I now am in the daily habit of picking dandelion greens for them. They also enjoy another weed, prickly lettuce. And they adore the leafy parts of some parsnips that have gone to seed in my old garden bed. There's also an old and sickly plum tree that is bearing some fruit this year but dropping much of it before it ripens. The girls are happy to peck at this still-green fruit. They even eat some of the grass they are on each day and happily scratch away at the ground, looking for bugs and insect grubs. They're helping to keep the Japanese beetle population in check. I've found that I only need to offer the hens a very small amount of store bought feed. One fifty pound bag ($14) lasted us about 7 weeks.

What I didn't expect was to get SO many eggs. Despite what I was told, my more than two year old hens are producing very nearly one egg per chicken per day. That's four eggs per day at least 6 days a week, and never fewer than three eggs per day. In other words, 28 eggs a week. This led to a minor panic attack on my part. At first I gave eggs away as a goodwill gesture to the neighbors; an attempt to forestall any possible complaints even though we are within the letter of the zoning codes and don't have a rooster. But soon I started casting about for recipes that use up eggs.

We had Monte Cristo sandwiches, which are sort of like French toast, sort of like grilled cheese, and sort of like a deli sandwich. The Monte Cristo typically has cheese, ham and turkey inside, with jam on one piece of bread and mustard on the other. Then it's dunked in beaten egg and cooked in a skillet. Some people dust the cooked sandwich with powdered sugar. These were better than we expected them to be and used egg up nicely.

I tried Asian Tea Eggs, which are hard-cooked eggs simmered again in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, tea leaves, water, and other seasonings. I wasn't crazy enough about the results to eat them eagerly.

Bread pudding has been a hit, with Marie Simmons' recipe from her cookbook, The Good Egg. She makes Strawberry Jam Bread Pudding with Almond Streusel, and it is delicious. I tweaked her version just a bit to work with what we had on hand as well as my own preferences. I made it with a mixed berry jam and cardamom in the streusel instead of her recommended cinnamon. I think it would be great with nearly any jam.

Strata, the savory version of bread pudding, is a great solution to the too many egg "problem" as well. I like strata because it doesn't require a pie crust like quiche does, and I often have heels from loaves of homemade bread lying around. Strata is great too because it's great for using up whatever leftovers you have in the kitchen. Half a can of stewed tomatoes is great, as is any cheese that isn't getting readily used for other purposes. I like to add sauteed onions to my strata, and also toast the bread and then rub it with a clove of garlic for extra flavor.

I don't worry about the dietary dangers of eating so many eggs. Our cholesterol levels are fine and the link between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol has largely been debunked anyway. Since our hens eat copious amounts of leafy greens, our eggs would be considered pastured eggs. Nutritional studies have shown that compared with conventionally produced eggs, pastured eggs are lower in total fat and cholesterol, higher in "good" cholesterol, higher in vitamins A, B, D and E, higher in folic acid and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. The yolks of our eggs are a beautiful dark orangish-yellow, indicating that they are packed with beta carotene.

I'm sure we wouldn't be eating so many eggs if we weren't keeping laying hens. But as we have the eggs, it makes sense to use as many as we can and sell a few for ready cash. By and large, the meals we make with eggs are extremely economical. Even if you're not getting "free" eggs, as we are, eggs can form the basis of a great many cheap and meatless meals. I recently heard that some farmers markets in the San Francisco bay area offer premium farm fresh eggs at $6 per dozen. This sounds outrageous on the face of it. Yet if you had two eggs for a breakfast made at home, the cost would only be $1 for the eggs. Throw in a cup of coffee or tea and some buttered toast and your total cost might be as high as $2. A $2 breakfast is a good deal. A serving of strata made with those super expensive eggs and lots of other ingredients might set you back as much as $3 or $4. A dinner costing $3 or $4 is a great deal.

So think about the mighty, humble egg as a cornerstone of your at-home, frugal and healthy meal preparation.