Friday, August 29, 2008

Harvest Parade

I'm working on a rather meaty pair of posts about chest freezers. But they're not ready yet. So today I give you some pictures of the garden and what's getting harvested lately.

Here's half of my Moon & Stars watermelon crop. The vines got bullied by my pumpkin plants, and each surviving vine put out a measly one watermelon. It tasted good though. There's also a variety of this watermelon with a true purple skin.

They look like a normal watermelon inside though:

These are the first few potatoes I harvested. The Sangre potatoes are in the white basin, and those are All Blues in the black basket. They look even darker in this picture than they really are. I still have a lot of potato harvesting to do.

This is about half of my sugar pumpkin crop. I've already used up four of them and given away that many too. About four or five are still in the garden, acting as bait for all those squash bugs.

This is part of our herb patch. That's Purple Opal Basil on the left, Spicy Bush Basil in the middle, and Purple Ruffles Basil on the right. In back are some chives. And buried somewhere under those exuberant basils are thyme and oregano. The thyme and oregano will have the last laugh though; they're perennials. I really cannot recommend the bush basil, by the way. The taste is downright hostile.

A few of our kale plants that get treated with my homemade bug spray. This plant is known by many names: kale lacinato, cavolo nero, palm kale, and Tuscan kale. We just call it yummy. I made the mistake of interplanting some chard with the kale.

Here are a few gorgeous examples of the Cherokee Trail of Tears heirloom bean. These are soup beans, but don't they look pretty in this fresh state?

They look awfully nice when shelled too, I think. They're so glossy and shiny, they look as though they've been oiled. I've harvested most of the main set, and only have about 2 1/2 cups of dried beans to show for it. But now the vines are starting to put out a smaller second set.

Finally, because I can't resist showing some finished products, here's a serving of Moonblush cherry tomato pasta, with garden herbs and our own garlic and eggs.

Also my lunch of vegetarian futomaki. The only things in here I produced myself are some chives and the egg. The avocado, alas, is store bought. But the carrots are from a neighbor. The only problem with futomaki is that I can never resist having a second one. Then I'm too full to move for a while.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The $50 Grocery Challenge: July & August Report

August must be the month of bottomless to-do lists and good intentions. The garden has gotten away from me entirely, and there are just never enough hours in the day. I had meant at some point this month to give an update on how we've been doing for the monthly $50 Grocery Challenge. In a nutshell: we overshot big time in July.

The problem was, we ran out of some essentials. I don't mean avocados, or chocolate. I mean olive oil and pasta. And rather than just buy a single bottle of oil and a pound of pasta, I bought a case of bottles and about 15 pounds of pasta. It was the right choice financially, because it coincided with a carpool run to Trader Joes, which has the best prices on organic extra-virgin olive oil and organic pasta in my area. But it definitely blew the Challenge right outta the water. See, there was batch after batch of pesto to be made with all the basil and sage coming out of the garden. On top of that, I also needed walnuts for the pesto. The walnuts were far cheaper than the more gourmet pine nuts, but they still weren't cheap. Faced with the choice of putting up the garden produce in a usable form, or sticking with the challenge, I opted for the food preservation. And truth be told, running out of olive oil would pretty much qualify as an emergency in my kitchen, tantamount only to running out of tea or garlic. We're talking meltdown territory. If I sound like I'm blaming the overspending on the pesto production, that's just an excuse.

So, we came in at well over $180 spent on food in July. Other than replenishing our supplies of basics, we didn't do too badly. No eating out, and pretty much every meal built around what was coming out of the garden. Lots of homemade pizza, pasta dishes, and some meat and fish pulled from the freezer.

This month we're doing a bit better with the Challenge, though we've spent a lot on dairy this month. I'm working on a post that will summarize my thoughts and observations on this crazy Grocery Challenge of mine. I'm getting pretty sick of tracking everything so closely, so I probably won't make any further monthly reports. But it has been a useful practice for me in that it has definitely changed my outlook on cooking and feeding ourselves. The change has been for the better and for the frugaller.

Related Posts:

$50 Monthly Grocery Challenge: How it Might Be Done

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Canning Update: Observations, Successes and Busts

I mentioned as how I was going to start pressure canning this year. (Can it really have been more than a month ago? Where did August go?) I said planned on canning tomato sauce, borscht soup, and salsa. Well, I gotta tell you, I've had very mixed results.

The pressure canning itself is pretty straightforward and less nerve wracking than I had feared. Nothing's exploded in my kitchen yet, anyhow. But my very first foray into pressure canning left me feeling mightily depressed. After a deal of work making a large batch of borscht from garden vegetables that included our beets, tomatoes and savoy cabbage, as well as some carrots donated by another gardener, then canning it all in quart jars...well, the results looked just godawful. This is a picture of the one jar that didn't seal, probably because it was overfilled. All the others popped themselves shut. But the color was horrid in every case, and the cabbage looked like it had been boiled to death in there. Given that the jars were under 10 pounds of pressure for 45 minutes, I guess that's a pretty accurate description.

I was so dispirited. I couldn't even persuade my normally brave husband to try my experimental first run; it was that bad. Looks like we'll chalk this one up to learning the ropes. Unless someone who sounds like they know their business comes along and offers a canning-proof borscht recipe, (please?) I'm sticking my borscht in the freezer from now on, just as I did last year. Humph!

Happily, the tomato sauce went much better. The tomatoes have been coming in slowly this year. And I don't have enough equipment to make very large batches of sauce at one time. But still I've gotten 8 quarts of roasted tomato sauce put away. My intentions of making salsa have been forestalled by the sluggish production of the tomato plants. But I may well get around to that before tomato season winds down. I would guess we still have a few weeks of good beefsteak tomatoes left to us, if the weather kindly cooperates.

So, yes. Baby steps in the canning department this year. I hope to get more proficient and braver with the process as time goes on. I also plan to can some apple butter in the fall when our apples ripen up. I'm almost at the point of being ready to say, "I'm ready for fall and all the apple chores."

Got any good canning recipes you want to share? Please, please do so in the comments!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In Further Praise of Domestic Poultry

I like gardening well enough, but I've never been able to work up much enthusiasm for dealing with common insect pests. I just don't like thinking about all the things that might go wrong, so I take a wing it sort of attitude. For the most part, this has worked well for me, which I suppose is why I still adhere to this way of thinking. Sure, not everything succeeds. But most of my gardening endeavors do, and I see acceptably good returns on my efforts.

My sugar pumpkins are pretty well done for the year. The leaves have been withering for several weeks now, and this rather unsavory looking bug has been conspicuously hanging about on the leaves and ripening pumpkins. I don't think they're squash bugs, unless I have a whole lot of young bugs that are going to change appearance as they grow. (Update: El from Fast Grow the Weeds confirms that these are, in fact, squash bugs.) Nor do they quite match the descriptions I've read of cucumber beetles, which will sometimes attack squash vines. Whatever they are, I figure if they're around in such numbers, they're up to no good.

Enter my frugal and very non-toxic solution. I walk around knocking these little critters into a wide plastic container, where they collect pretty easily. Then I dump a load of them straight into the chicken pen, where their life expectancy is roughly that of a tissue paper mouse being chased through hell by an asbestos cat. I don't know the name of these bugs, and neither do my hens. But they recognize them sure enough as snack food. It's frugal because I don't spend any money to deal with the insects, and because I reduce my feed costs for the girls, who then turn these bugs into eggs that I get to eat. I spent about 10 minutes this morning collecting the bugs, and plan to repeat this minor chore daily until the bugs are too few to collect. If I were able to keep my hens as free range birds, I wouldn't even have to make that much of an effort.

It's nice to use the chickens as pest control. My girls are getting older, and their egg output is becoming rather inconsistent. So it's gratifying to have them providing other services. Now someone please tell me what these bugs are. I really hope I'm not feeding the girls some beneficials.

Related Posts:
Going Mobile with a Backyard Flock
Putting the Livestock to Work
Meat Rabbits On Pasture

Monday, August 25, 2008

Microlending: Charity, Investment, or Entertainment?

A lot of frugality and personal finance bloggers write about the importance of charitable donations. I have to admit that historically I haven't been much of a giver money-wise. I'm much more likely to donate my time and efforts than to give money. I work at a local food bank about six times per year, bagging food for the clientele. And this year I've pitched in as a volunteer at the local library and for a local agricultural organization. But yesterday I tried something different.

I read Flexo's post on the Kiva credit card. Kiva is a non-profit middle-man organization for microlending. Microlending is pretty much what it sounds like - loans of very small amounts to entrepreneurs who wouldn't normally be eligible for conventional loans from a bank. Kiva offers the opportunity to browse real-live loan candidates from developing countries all over the world. You can see pictures, read short descriptions of the people who are seeking loans, and choose to "invest" as little as $25 to help an individual half way across the world improve their life and those of their family as well. You can even search by what sort of business the person is pursuing. The great part is that 100% of your donation goes directly to fund the loan. Kiva doesn't take a cent off the top.

Now it so happens that last week I sold a fancy cookbook from a fancy restaurant on eBay. I'd gotten the cookbook as a gift and had never cooked a single thing from it. Clearly, it was a good candidate for clutter reduction. I made almost exactly $25 on the auction, and I had that money sitting in my Paypal account. I had planned to snowflake that money towards an extra principle payment on our mortgage next month. But then I got to browsing the Kiva website, and I started thinking about what someone else could do with that $25. Soon enough, I'd chosen a female dairy farmer in Central Asia as my loan recipient. She wants a loan to buy another milking cow. Her total requested loan amount of $875 is not yet fully funded, and there are only a few days left for lenders to fund it.

Some bloggers have actually examined microlending as a viable investment option. As a lender, I may actually earn some interest from this loan if it is repaid. My view is a little different. True, I may get my money back. But in my mind, I just donated that $25, or I spent it on edutainment. Giving money to someone in a part of Central Asia I'd never heard of spurred me to fire up Google Earth and look at the satellite images, and then see what Wikipedia had to say about the place. I know I'll look forward to hearing the updates about this woman's business over the next year or so. If the loan is repaid, I intend to re-loan the original amount plus any interest it earns through Kiva.

Bloggers often talk about the feelings of satisfaction, benevolence, and wealth that come from giving to charity. I don't know why, but I resist these warm fuzzies. I don't like to feel benevolent or noble, or view my actions as anything but self-serving. Satisfied perhaps. I guess I just need to maintain some image of myself as a hardass. I believe I'll get my money's worth by watching how this tiny $25 drama unfolds. If the "investment" pays off, in time I'll get to watch larger dramas. And it'll all be funded by selling a book I never wanted in the first place.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Accepting Handouts

So much stuff simply gets tossed away in our society, only to clog up the landfills, or worse, our oceans. My advice is to make friends with people who are apt, even eager, to part with items that are still perfectly serviceable. They may look foolish to you, frugal soul that you are, with their constant replacements or upgrades for possessions that are just fine as they are. But in all likelihood they aren't stupid, they're just fixed in the way they think about life. That's just fine: make it work to your advantage. Knowing people who are early upgraders or who "need" to have everything they own be in perfect condition is a good thing for any frugal person.

Further, never say no when someone offers you something. Unless accepting it will impose a serious burden on you, it's always best to firmly establish the impression that you are happy to receive any item they may want to get rid of. Maybe you can use it, sell it at a yardsale, give it away to someone else who needs it, sell it for scrap metal, donate it to a charity, or take it to the recycling center yourself. Exactly what you do with it is not the issue. Saying yes to all offers keeps the offers coming. And at least some of those offers will probably be great. If you say no too often, they may stop offering. So try to say yes as often as possible.

Items we've picked up as hand-me-downs or giveaways include a great wheelbarrow, an old but functional sit-down lawn mower, an upright freezer, three bags of organic powdered dry milk, and several bags of very expensive tea. People we know personally simply wanted to get rid of all this stuff. In the case of the wheelbarrow, the bucket had a small crack in it, which was easily repaired. The food items simply weren't wanted, but were still perfectly wholesome. I never ask why they bought this unwanted stuff in the first place, I just show my appreciation, and usually some genuine excitement. And I remember those donors when I have garden surplus. The upright freezer turned out to be very old and so inefficient that it made no sense for us to run it. So we got rid of it. But because we'd said yes, we continued to get offers for other things from the people who gave it to us. We've even been offered the heating oil out of the old tanks of a couple who installed a geothermal system. We're working on ways of getting that out.

Of course, there are ways of increasing your chances at this sort of largess if you don't have a strong social network yet because you're new to an area. Use the intertubes. Craigslist, Freecycle - put these websites to work for you. I had one guy contact me after I posted a wanted ad on craigslist for canning jars. To be clear, I was offering to buy canning jars. Here was someone calling me and asking if I wanted two free pressure canners. Guess what I said? Free is my favorite flavor, and it's always in the budget.

Honestly, I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There are times when people simply want to get rid of perfectly useful stuff. Who knows why? You're actually doing them a favor by accepting it and taking it off their hands. Win-win, right? I see nothing at all wrong with accepting this sort of handout. Cultivating a reputation for always saying yes to free offers has really worked in our favor.

By the same token, we try to find people who can use the few things we end up with that we don't need or want. We're pretty frugal, so we don't tend to accumulate much by way of purchases. But we have a few bits and bobs now and then. Freecycle and Craigslist, again, are good tools to reduce the clutter. And we get to see the other side of the coin: people who are thrilled to get stuff we don't need or want, usually for free.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Simple Frugality: Do Fewer Dishes

I feel like I've been talking about food, gardening, and harvesting a lot lately. Well, it is August, folks. It's to be expected. Still, I felt it was time to get off that one-note tune for at least a few days.

So here's a tiny frugal tip, with credit to the redoubtable Amy Dacyczyn: Stop doing so many dishes. When my husband isn't traveling, we run the dishwasher a lot. More than twice as often as when he's away on business. I think this is because with more than one person in the house, we're each more likely to clean up after ourselves so as not to leave a messy table for the other. And so, with the dishes promptly put in the dishwasher, it's not so easy to re-use a plate or a glass that is essentially clean after a single use.

So I suggested that we try a rubberband trick. He'd put a red one on his glass, and I'd use blue. That way we could easily distinguish our glasses and have a visual reminder to use our own more than once if it's not dirty. Presto! The dishwasher filled up a little more slowly, so we ran it less often.

Now, I'm sure there are some folks out there who would be scandalized by this re-use of glassware or plates. In a restaurant, I want a clean plate. In my own home, where I know who's touched it, what's been on it, and who ate off of it, I'm pretty laid back. My dishes don't need to be autoclaved between meals. Granted, if it looks dirty, it gets cleaned after the first use. A few crumbs on my plate from my morning toast are no bar to putting my lunch on it, in my book. It's a meal, not invasive surgery.

Anyway, this works for us. It probably saves us $1 or more per week in detergent and hot water. And it costs us nothing but a little more of our attention. If it seems like you're constantly doing dishes, you might give this a try. If you wanted to take it to the next step, you could mark a bowl, plate, cup and mug with different colors of electrical tape for each member of your family. Then each person would be responsible for their own dishes, and could decide how often and when to wash them. Just watch out for someone lazy sneaking uses from the clean freak's personal set!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This Is What I'm Talking About

Tomatoes! Finally. We're more than half way through tomato month - August - and the beefsteak tomatoes are just now getting around to ripening up en masse. They've been hanging on the vine for months, it seems, taunting me. Well they're comin' in now. I picked that pile yesterday, roasted a bunch of them, pureed them into sauce, and then canned them. (Which reminds me: I plan to report on my canning successes and failures soon.)

Featured in that picture above are Cherokee Purple tomatoes (kinda greenish red), as well as Brandywines (deep pink-red). I really have no idea what those yellow tomatoes are or how they showed up in my garden. They sure look like the German Stripes I grew last year, but I didn't think I was germinating any of those this time around. That one long tomato is a variety of paste tomato called the Super Marzano. I haven't been terribly impressed by it, but then paste tomatoes are rarely exciting. The other plum tomatoes are just Romas.

The Cherokee Purples were planted on the recommendation of a friend who swore they were better than my favorites, the Brandywine. The Cherokees are good, very flavorful and lively. But I still think the Brandywines have a better taste overall. The trouble with Brandywines is that they're prissy. They split very easily after rains. I almost never get one that isn't damaged in some way by the time I get it in the house. The Cherokees grow in clusters so dense that it's a little intimidating to try and pick just one. I'm convinced that a marketer came up with the German Stripes. They're huge, look beautiful, and they have almost no flavor. The ones I've got this year (if that's what they are), are going straight into sauce. The main point and virtue of the paste tomato varieties is that they're good for making sauce. Because they are more meaty and less juicy, it's not as much work to reduce them to a sauce consistency. As a side bonus of this quality, they very rarely split, even after heavy rains.

You can see that I'm an equal opportunity tomato consumer when it comes to sauce. Anything that's ripe that isn't going to get eaten in a sandwich is fair game. My recipe is as follows. Preheat the oven to 475 F. Arrange a rack on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil. Put a couple tablespoons each of tomato paste and olive oil in a bowl. Add some dried oregano or another herb of your choice, as well as a generous pinch of salt and ground pepper. Mix well. Cut your tomatoes in half over the bowl to collect any juice, and let the tomatoes drop into the bowl. When you've got a good amount, toss them well with the paste and oil so that they are coated. Arrange them cut sides down on the rack. Cut up one onion into large slices and add a few cloves of garlic if you wish. Toss the sliced onion and garlic with whatever liquid remains in the bowl. Fold a little sheet of aluminum foil to hold the onions and garlic and place them on the tray. (Them's the charred onions in the top right corner of the sheet tray.) Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the skins are well charred. Let the ingredients cool for 10-15 minutes, then puree everything in a food processor or blender. If you're fussy you can remove the skins before pureeing, but I generally leave them on. You can leave the sauce a bit chunky too if you like. The rack keeps the tomatoes from just turning to slush in their own juices. You can add the drippy bits in the pan into your sauce if you wish, or just dress your salad with the stuff.

Ah, August! This brief window of tomato sandwiches is savored and anticipated all year. The canned sauce is nice. But nothing beats an open faced tomato sandwich with purple basil. That's what I'm talking about...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

There's Just No Telling

Yesterday I posted about the various benefits of keeping chickens. Our hens are now about two and a half years old, which is older than 99% of all laying hens in the US ever get. They still produce eggs well. But as can be expected from their age, their output isn't what you'd call consistent. On Sunday they produced just one egg between the four of them. This was an unprecedented lapse on their part. Once or twice before I'd gone out to find only two eggs, and I gave them a stern talking to, which ruffled their feathers not at all.

But yesterday the girls surprised me yet again. I retrieved one early egg. Then on a later check I found in their nesting box two eggs of normal size and one tiny egg. So tiny I had to laugh. It looked like a jumbo quail egg. This diminutive little treasure made me very glad that I had taken a picture a few weeks ago when an egg the size of a goose's showed up in the box. I looked over the hens to see which one might be walking funny when I found that one.

Look at the differences between these two eggs! The one on top weighs twice as much as a grade AA large egg. When I cracked it open, it held two yolks. The one below doesn't even make the cut for a small egg, weighing in at less than an ounce! I can't wait to see what's in that little egg.
That's the thing about keeping hens. They'll surprise you. I never know for sure what I'll find when I take a stroll out to their pen and coop. The colors vary. The sizes vary. The quantities vary. There's just no telling.

This is the sort of simple daily entertainment I couldn't put a price on, but that comes to me free anyway. And then I get to eat an egg for breakfast.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting the Livestock to Work

We love having fresh eggs from our own laying hens. The girls are very easy to care for and the eggs help us keep our grocery bills trimmed. But it occurred to me that I haven't really pointed out the other virtues of the domestic chicken. We use them as workers too.

Chickens love to scratch the earth, looking for tender green shoots, grubs, worms, and insects. They are natural scavengers, and their clawed toes are adapted to help them find these treats they so love. Though we knew this as an abstract fact before we got the hens, we were soon given a more concrete lesson when we started rotating their pen around our lawn. Even when moved every single day, they scratched right through the grass and into the turf, leaving sizable bare patches. So we started letting our grass grow longer before putting them on it. That helped it stand up the abuse from our energetic poultry.

But we soon realized that our girls could be put to work doing what they love to do, for our benefit. So after harvesting my garlic, we positioned their pen over the empty garlic beds. Within two days there was little greenery left in what had been the weedy rows between the different varieties of garlic. In a matter of days, they tore out every weed, scratched up the dirt to make holes for dust bathing, and generally had a great time.

After all the weeds were gone, I made sure they got plenty of extra greens from elsewhere. Like beaten up leaves of chard from the garden, or dandelions. Having hens gives me a good reason to pull dandelions, and makes me see them as assets to be managed, rather than enemies to be exterminated. I'm generally not fond of weeding, but knowing that the girl relish these weeds provides plenty of incentive. I also started pitching a few five-gallon buckets of compost into their pen each morning. The girls tore into this stuff delightedly. I was delighted too. I've composted for many years, but I am a very lazy composter. I don't enjoy turning the pile and rarely get around to that chore. Our girls were more than happy to turn it for me, breaking it down much faster than it would when left to its own devices, and working it into the soil. And at the same time they were adding manure to my garden beds.

In about ten days, our four hens had meticulously prepared a patch of the garden roughly 6'x12', twice the size of their mobile pen. I moved them off the garden and back on to the lawn. Then I followed the "lasagna method" of mulching. I laid down about 3" of free compost from the township yard waste center, covered that with heavy layers of newspaper, and then covered the newspaper with free mulch from the township too. The bed looks wonderful, and it took almost no effort on my part. The chickens enjoyed the change of scenery and the dustbathing.

Now that my squash crop is nearly ready, I am eyeing that larger patch of soil in our large garden bed. If all goes as planned, I will use the girls as before to clear the weeds and scratch up the earth. Then I'll sow a fast-growing fall or winter cover crop and let it grow while the girls work on other patches of the garden, each the exact size and shape of their mobile pen. The cover crop will grow somewhat this year, and continue in the spring. It will use its head start of this year's growth to outcompete any opportunistic spring weeds. As bonuses, the cover crop will: loosen the soil with its roots, add organic material, and feed our chickens in the spring. By putting the girls back on the same plot in the spring, they'll do the harvesting of the crop themselves, save me a few days' of feed, and loosen up the soil one more time before I plant. Having the chickens in the garden means they're working their own manure directly into the soil as well.

I offer this experience and these plans to those of you who might have been curious about keeping chickens. Maybe delicious eggs alone aren't quite enough to convince you to give it a try. Perhaps thinking of the hens as pieces of autonomous garden machinery might tip the balance. In any case, I've been well pleased with the contributions of our hens. They've saved me time and effort in the garden, which I appreciate a great deal. Eggs, manure, weeding, and soil preparation. They pull their weight, that's for sure.

Related Posts:
Going Mobile with a Backyard Flock
In Further Praise of Domestic Poultry
Meat Rabbits On Pasture

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Harvest Meal: Pyttipanna

Cooking out of a garden comes with certain imperatives. We must use up what is ready for harvest, find a way to store it, or let it go to waste. The chickens are more than happy to accept certain things, but this is very much a close-to-the-last-resort option, coming in just slightly ahead of the compost bin. Right now, at the height of garden output season, meals are starting to look like the assets, and the outflow of food sorta, kinda looks like a problem. But not really. It's just work.

Right now we have a few beets and plenty of potatoes, among other things, ready for harvest. This turned my mind to a dish I enjoyed while visiting Scandinavia. It's called pyttipanna in Swedish, and apparently it means "put in pan." Pyttipanna, like so many traditional dishes from so many countries, is a case of making the best of what was available: in this case, leftovers. Scandinavia, being a rather northern country, relied on pickling to store vegetables over the long winters. And the hardy potato, once introduced from the New World, rapidly became a staple crop. Pyttipanna practically self-assembles from leftover cooked potatoes, pickled beets, onions, and some cured meat such as ham or sausage. The ingredients are all chopped up and cooked together like hash. It is frequently served with a fried egg on top. This is hearty Nordic fare, capable of sustaining one through long, cold winters. I really enjoyed it during my travels.

We're not exactly in the middle of a Scandinavian winter here though. Nonetheless I have beets and potatoes, and a steady supply of eggs. The supply demands to be used up. So I figured that giving some version of the dish a try was in order. We'd eat lightly the rest of the day to compensate for a large, highly caloric meal.

The potatoes I've harvested so far are of the Sangre variety. These are smallish, red-skinned, waxy potatoes, and not the ideal type for frying or hash browns. But that's what I had, so that's what went into the pyttipanna. I also had one medium beet fresh out of the garden, and a small piece of chuck roast from the freezer to go into the dish. These items were augmented by a store-bought onion, a few spices, a surprising amount of butter, and eggs from our hens.

Well, I gotta tell you, wrong sort of potatoes or no, this turned out delicious. It certainly wouldn't win any beauty contests with the disintegrating potatoes, but we loved it. The sweetness of the beet was remarkable, given how little of it there was compared to the other ingredients. And the chuck roast did fine when cut into small bits, even thought it usually requires a long, slow, wet cooking method to tenderized it. In small bits, it wasn't tough at all. Topped with a freshly fried, runny-yolked egg, the pyttipanna was filling and yet seemed very wholesome. There were surprisingly few leftovers. I will definitely be making this dish again.

Cost-wise, the pyttipanna was a hit. I'd guess we spent $3.50 for the entire skillet full of food, mostly due to the large amount of organic butter I fried everything in. I used about 3/4 lb. of meat, and it would have been fine with a little less. We ate big portions since it was so good, but we still got three meals and a snack out of it. So figure $1 per serving. The only ingredient in it that we bought recently was the onion. Everything else was either pulled from storage or came from the garden.

Homegrown beet
Homegrown Sangre potatoes
Part of a chuck roast from the freezer (bought on sale a while ago)
Eggs from our laying hens
Purchased onion and butter (both organic)
Purchased spices and seasonings

When we did nibble on the leftovers, they were incredibly satisfying, in a sort of eat-it-cold-straight-out-of-the-container way. Also, the leftovers strongly suggested themselves, or a close variation, as a possible filling for Cornish pasties. Stay tuned for further culinary adventures as I run around like a madwoman trying to use up all this food!

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Baking Day in the Middle of August

I'd pretty much given up on any serious baking, other than an occasional pizza, for the summer. But our stores of no-knead bread have been getting very low. Very low indeed. And my favorite tomato sauce requires high temperature roasting. The tomatoes are poised to come in hot and heavy this month. So this past weekend, I checked the weather forecast. I was stunned to see that a high temperature of only 70 was forecast for Monday. Hot damn! That's baking weather. My agenda for Monday was set.

I geared up big time for a marathon baking day, and it was so much work that it's taken me this long to recover sufficiently to tell you about it. On Sunday I made two pie crusts for quiche, and prepped five pounds' worth of Moonblush cherry tomatoes. I also mixed up two double batches of my multigrain no-knead dough. 101 Cookbook's special zucchini bread recipe and apple butter cake were also on the agenda, so I juiced six lemons and converted half of the peels into zest and the other half into candied peels. These organic lemons had been sitting around long enough, and I knew I'd need the zest for baking. The juice got frozen via the ice cube tray trick. All this prep set me up well for Monday.

After folding and letting the no-knead bread rise, I fired up the oven at 9 am on Monday morning. The oven was on continuously until 5 pm, and except for short periods when I needed to change the temperature of the oven, it was never empty. While the bread baked, I prepped the Special Zucchini Bread, modifying the recipe willy-nilly to suit what ingredients I had on hand. As soon as the last two loaves of bread came out of the oven, in went the two loaves of zucchini bread. Then I prepped a batch of roasted tomato sauce with the beefsteak and Roma tomatoes that are now ripening in the garden. While that cooked, I washed the zucchini bread residue off the loaf pans and prepped the apple butter cakes. I cut up some of our sugar pumpkins from the garden, trimmed them, and then put the slices in the oven for a long slow bake as soon as the apple butter cakes were out. These were destined for our dinner of kaddo bourani, a succulent Afghan recipe I once enjoyed at Helmand restaurant in San Francisco. I had waited years to try this recipe. I was able to pre-bake the quiche shells while the pumpkin cooked, since the oven temperature was compatible. While the quiche shells cooled and the pumpkin did its thing, I prepared two different sauces to go with the pumpkins: a ground beef and tomato sauce and a garlicky minted yogurt sauce. I also pureed the roasted tomatoes and canned the sauce, then assembled the two quiches to be ready for the oven when the pumpkin came out.

Aside from the bread, everything I prepared contained ingredients that I had grown myself or in some way been involved in procuring directly. Here's a list of food that was "processed" to make it store longer:

Roasted Tomato Sauce:
tomatoes and garlic from the garden

Zucchini bread:
zucchini from the garden
gleaned, hand-shelled hickory nuts
eggs from our laying hens
homemade vanilla extract
homemade candied lemon peel

Kaddo Bourani:
sugar pumpkin, garlic, and tomatoes from the garden
Part of a chuck roast bought on sale and ground up at home

Apple butter cake:
apple butter made last fall from our homegrown apples
eggs from our laying hens

homegrown cherry tomatoes (converted into Moonblush tomatoes)
homegrown rainbow chard
homemade pie crust
eggs from our laying hens

We finally sat down to dinner around 7:30. I was exhausted! You'll have to take my word that the kaddo bourani was sublime and very filling, because by that time I was too hungry and tired to waste time snapping pictures. But dinner tasted better knowing that I had four loaves of my multigrain bread, two loaves of zucchini bread, two apple butter cakes, two quiches, and three quarts of canned roasted tomato sauce to show for my efforts. Plus plenty of leftovers from dinner. The freezer was well stocked, and I knew we wouldn't run out of bread until cooler weather arrives. I went to bed early with an enormous feeling of satisfaction at having put so much of our garden produce to good use.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Moonblush" Cherry Tomatoes

We had rain on Sunday, so I got serious about harvesting cherry tomatoes. Rain always makes them split, and I knew there were a lot of them out there. Due to a gardening mix-up this spring, I ended up planting twice as many cherry tomato plants as intended, but that's another story. The upshot though, was that I brought in about six pounds of ripe cherry tomatoes. I'd had this bee in my bonnet about oven drying some of them. But I couldn't exactly remember the recipe I'd seen somewhere.

This happens to me a lot. I read tons of recipes, remember certain key details and lose others. Then I forget whose recipe it was in the first place, which makes it tough to track down. In this case, the details I remembered were that the cherry tomatoes get laid out on a sheet tray and placed in a very hot oven, which is then immediately turned off. Leave the tomatoes in there overnight and enjoy them the next day. After a few minutes with google, I figured out that these were Nigella Lawson's "Moonblush" Tomatoes.

In her cookbook, Nigella Express, she calls this recipe "effortless." Well, that may be nearly true with a pint basket of pre-washed cherry tomatoes, but when you've got six pounds of those suckers, effortless it ain't. It took a while to wash them all, pull off the stems, cut each one in half and then prepare them two pounds at a time. Ms. Lawson called for dried thyme to be mixed with the cherry tomatoes before cooking. I didn't have any dried thyme, but I did have dried oregano, as well fresh thyme and basil growing in the garden. So I mixed three different batches and cooked each batch on separate half-sheet pans.

Nigella was right, this simple cooking trick transformed a nice, fresh, wholesome garden product into something that's better than candy. It was very hard not to just gobble these little gems compulsively. I thought the ones with the fresh basil tasted the best. But they all tasted pretty darn good. Even the ones that got a little charred on top. Some of these tomatoes went into two quiches that I made on Monday. I snacked on them too as I worked through that long-haul day of baking and food prep. The rest got used up quickly in pasta, salad, and sandwiches. Six pounds of cherry tomatoes can disappear fast when they undergo this alchemy.

Next time you have a spare pound of cherry tomatoes, try this in the evening:

Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Arrange a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat it to its maximum temperature, at least 500 degrees. Rinse and drain the tomatoes and remove any stems. Cut each tomato in half and put the halves in a mixing bowl. Add two tablespoons of good olive oil, a teaspoon of table salt, a teaspoon of sugar, and then either 1 teaspoon of dried herb OR 1 tablespoon of finely minced fresh herb. (Oregano, parsley, thyme and basil are all good candidates.) Toss the tomatoes and seasonings gently with your fingers. Pour the tomatoes out onto the baking pan and arrange them all cut side up. Put the pan in the oven, close the door quickly, and immediately turn off the heat. Leave the door closed for 10-12 hours, preferably overnight.

In the morning you'll have a special homemade treat that just begs you to get creative with it in the kitchen. That is, assuming you don't just graze them out of existence.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Saving Eggs

I've mentioned before that we got four older laying hens this past spring. They still turn out eggs like champs, despite the summer heat and their ages. I get more than enough eggs for us to eat. So I sell a dozen now and then to friends or family. Even so, I can still end up with surplus eggs on my hands. So, knowing that we're going to cash in these hens this winter, I've started preserving some eggs.

The classic reference for preserving all kinds of food, Stocking Up, gives very simple instructions on freezing eggs. Just add 1 teaspoon of table salt for every cup of eggs and beat them really well. After that, I use my ice cube tray trick, ladling the salted beaten egg into the ice cube trays and freezing them. Oh, but before I do that, I spray the tray with baking spray oil. That helps the eggs come out of the tray more easily when they're frozen. Each compartment of the tray happens to hold two tablespoons, which is equivalent to half an extra-large egg. So for any recipe that calls for an egg, I can just use two frozen cubes. Removed from the trays, these eggs will keep for up to six months in a ziploc bag in the freezer.

I probably won't be using these for scrambled eggs. But I will use them up in my baking projects, which always pick up in the wintertime. It's nice to run the oven then, and it's not self-defeating to warm up the house a bit. I like to stock my freezer full of a variety of breakfast muffins over the winter. And I'm planning to learn how to make panettone later this year too (with a view towards holiday decadence as well as gift-giving), so the stored eggs will come in very handy.

I know we're going to miss the fresh eggs when the girls stop laying. It will be very galling to have to go to the store and actually buy eggs. Having a supply of our home produced eggs for baking will take some of the sting out of it for us, I hope.

Of course, I could also store away some prepared foods that include eggs. I may well get around to making some quiche to freeze. Another possibility for when our potatoes finally come in is to make gnocchi with egg and then freeze the gnocchi. The gnocchi would store longer than the quiche, which should only be kept for a couple of months. But gnocchi are quite labor intensive to produce, so I'll have to see what other chores are on the horizon when the potatoes are ready for harvest.

In any case, now that I know the frozen egg trick, I'll never leave eggs in the refrigerator before setting off on a longish trip.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Another Harvest Meal: Peanut Noodles with Garden Vegetables

On Saturday night I whipped up a delicious dish of peanut noodles from garden produce, pantry items, and some of that free jar of peanut butter, following a recipe left in the comments. I used up some of this rainbow chard, part of an oversized zucchini, and a generous handful of cherry tomatoes. The veggies were stir-fried and then mixed with rice noodles and a peanutty sauce made with creamy peanut butter.

Here's how I went about it.

Place 8 ounces of dried rice noodles in a pot and cover with tepid water. Let them soak for at least 30 minutes, and up to a few hours.  If you need them in a hurry, gently warm the water until they soften significantly, but do not boil them.  When soft enough to bend easily they are ready, and you can achieve this with a long soak at room temperature.  Then drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, mix the following: 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. dark roasted sesame oil, 3-4 tsp. ancho chili powder (or other chili powder). Stir to combine and then thin with a little water if the sauce is very thick.

Large dice about 3-4 cups of vegetables. I used chard, cherry tomatoes, and zucchini. But other vegetables would work well too. Also mince a few cloves of garlic and a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger. Finely slice the white parts of several scallions. Cut the green parts into larger pieces. Mix the garlic, ginger and scallion whites together in a bowl.

Pre-heat a large cast iron skillet (the larger the better) for 10-12 minutes on high heat. The pan will be smokin' hot. Add a generous amount of cooking oil and tilt the skillet quickly to coat evenly. Add the ginger, garlic, and scallion whites and quickly stir for just a few seconds. Add the vegetables very quickly so the seasoning ingredients do not burn. Stir the vegetables as they sizzle in the oil, until they are softened and/or slightly wilted. (If you are using vegetables that require very different cooking times, add them sequentially, in order of longest cooking time to shortest.) The vegetables should not need more than a few minutes to cook at such a high temperature.

Add the noodles and scallion greens to the skillet and add the peanut sauce on top of them. (You may want to hold back some of the sauce, depending on how heavily dressed you like your noodles.) Toss the ingredients with cooking tongs, as you would a salad, to distribute the sauce and heat the noodles through. Serve hot, garnished with a wedge of lemon or cilantro if you like.

It occurred to me that this is a vegan recipe, though I'm far from vegetarian, let alone vegan. This dish will serve 2-4, depending on appetites. We had plenty to eat and a fair amount of leftovers, which were pretty good eaten cold the next day.

I love pulling together dishes like this that taste great and cost us nearly nothing. Garden produce, pantry items, and a freebie ingredient. The rice noodles cost 50 cents, and the rest of the ingredients that we paid for probably came to less than $1. $1.50 for four hearty and healthy meals is a good deal, wouldn't you say?

Other harvest meals:
Saag Paneer
Garden Pizza
Egg & Chard Curry
Fusilli with Tuscan Kale in a Creamy Tomato Sauce
Pumpkin-Sage Penne Pasta
Kale & Barley Soup
Vegetable Soup with Lamb Stock
Carrot and Chili Pepper Escabeche
Arugula Noodles
Garlic Scape Carbonara
Vegetarian Futomaki

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Popcorn: A Cheap Snack

Who doesn't love popcorn? I don't know anyone who dislikes it. Yet popcorn gets a bad rap for different reasons from several different viewpoints. Dieters avoid it because it's so often doused with fat. Frugalites eschew the astronomical markup on microwave popcorn. And the whole thing with corn basically taking over the American diet probably hasn't helped popcorn's image either.

But I love popcorn so much that I decided to grow some this year. It's one of the most common snack foods in our home. We pop ours right on the stove in oil. I've heard from a lot of people that they prefer expensive microwave popcorn to oil-popped corn because the texture of microwave popcorn is "just right." It seems a lot of people have trouble producing perfectly popped popcorn on their own. Well, it just so happens that I've got the oil-popped cooking method dialed in. So I'm going to share it with you. Follow these steps and you'll soon be enjoying perfectly popped popcorn, on the cheap.

Start with a fresh bag of popcorn, a 2-quart stockpot with a fitted lid, some neutral cooking oil like canola or safflower, and a serving bowl. If you want butter and salt to season the popcorn, have those ready too.

Put your pot on the burner and heat it over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Pour about 1 tablespoon of oil into the pan, and let that heat for another minute. Then pour in some popcorn. You want to add enough so that it all lies on the bottom of the pan in a single layer, without entirely covering the pan bottom. You should see the corn covering about 2/3 to 3/4 of the bottom of the pan. Give the corn and oil a swirl so that all the kernels are coated with oil. If your pan was properly pre-heated, you should see tiny bubbles forming in the oil around the kernels pretty much right away. Cover the pan with the lid.

Leave the heat on medium. (Higher heat produces tough, chewy popcorn and will contribute to scorching.) You will not hear any popping for a full minute or more, though you may hear some sizzling. This is fine. When the popping begins, give the pan another shake with the lid on. Let the popping continue. Listen carefully as the popping slows down. When you hear what you think might be the last pop, start counting out loud, "one-one thousand, two-one thousand..." If you hear another pop before you finish with "three-one thousand," start counting again from one. When you get through "three-one thousand" without being interrupted by another pop, dump the popcorn into the waiting serving bowl. This should leave very few unpopped kernels in the pan.

You should now have a bowl full of large, beautiful, tender popcorn without any burnt pieces. If there are any, you may have used too big a burner for your pan, or your stovetop may run hot. Adjust this for your next batch.

Popcorn's texture improves slightly if you let it cool for a minute or two before eating it or adding butter. So I always melt my butter after the popcorn has popped. You can jazz up your snack by adding garlic, spices, or even fresh herbs to the butter. A finely grated hard cheese is also a nice twist. For best results when adding cheese, use a microplane grater and don't add too much. I've found that ancho chili powder makes a nice addition to the melted butter. Finely sliced fresh basil is great too.

So pop your own popcorn at home. It'll save you a bundle over either the popped and packaged or the microwave variety, and you won't get popcorn lung. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Popcorn Harvest!

One of the new-to-me plants in my garden this year is popcorn. It's the most popular snack in my home, so I thought I'd try growing some. I chose this dwarf variety, called Tom Thumb. Appropriate, wouldn't you say? Yesterday evening I managed to fight my way into that overgrown quadrant of the garden. I found several ears with dried out looking husks. So I harvested a few of them. Aren't they darling? I've never seen such tiny ears of fully mature corn.

It remains to be seen how this popcorn will pop up, but I'm guessing the miniature kernels will make rather small popped pieces. The optimal moisture content for popcorn is apparently somewhere around 15%. I have no idea how I'm going to determine the moisture content of the kernels. But I do know that these ears will need to dry down a bit before I try popping a test batch. I'll give it at least a few weeks before I try it. Look for a post on making perfect oil-popped popcorn soon. It's much cheaper than that awful microwaved stuff!

I also harvested a few sugar pumpkins yesterday and the very first of my Cherokee Trail of Tears black beans. I've never grown beans before either as I'm not a fan of green beans. But these are a dried bean variety, and we do love our bean soups. These are beautiful, jet black and very shiny little gems. I'll post a picture of them when I have harvested a larger amount. I'll definitely grow more of them next year.

Related posts:
Dealing with the Popcorn Harvest
When to Harvest Popcorn

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Free Jar of Peanut Butter

I got a free jar of organic peanut butter yesterday, and I'm trying to come up with things to do with it. I'm not a big fan of peanut butter; I overloaded on it as a child. I don't dislike it, by any means. I'd certainly eat it if someone put it in front of me. But it's not something I buy, and peanut butter cookies aren't the ones I reach for on the cookie platter.

Still, this is wholesome free food. I'm not about to turn it down or let it go to waste. There's got to be a way for me to use it up and enjoy it at the same time. So I'm looking for something I can make with peanut butter that doesn't taste know, peanut buttery. There's peanut noodles, and peanut soup, and there must be plenty of baking recipes for sweet treats that don't taste overwhelmingly of this stuff. (Chocolate must certainly be a big help in that department.) I'm just hoping my readers can point me to some good ones.

So...Got any tried and true recipes that use up peanut butter? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sometimes Frugaller is Healthier

I was at a local food event recently. There was an ice cream vendor selling cones and cups from a truck. Since I'd gotten in to the event (which included a meal) for free by volunteering to do a little work, I decided to splurge just a little for a cool treat on a hot day. I duly queued up to await my chance at commerce.

There was a list of flavors on the window, along with three prices: child for $1.50, single for $2.50, or double for $3.50. One older gentleman in front of me got a lovely looking cone of mint chocolate chip. I noticed that he had only asked for the "child" size. He started eating it as he ambled away, so it wasn't for a young person he was with. It looked like plenty of ice cream to me. I admired his restraint and his frugality, and I thought he set a fine example. So I asked for a child sized cone of black raspberry when it was my turn, and paid just $1.50. Even the "child" size was two scoops of ice cream.

The ice cream was indeed good. And after a rather generous meal, that portion was all I really could have or should have eaten. And yet I saw actual children wandering around with towering cones of three scoops or more. (This after eating the same meal I had - everyone who attended got a freshly grilled 6 oz. hamburger.) I know this shouldn't surprise me, but it still does. Well over half the kids there were overweight. I doubt many of them were earning their own pocket money, so they weren't paying for those cones themselves. There was a perfectly sufficient portion size specifically designated for children. And yet their parents apparently thought that wasn't the right size for these kids. Did they give in because the kids whined? Did the kids not even need to whine because the parents have relinquished all control over such decisions? Or is this just the American stigma against anything small?

I enjoyed the ice cream. Sure, the most frugal thing would have been to just eat the meal I earned by volunteering and to enjoy the atmosphere of the event. But I don't feel any guilt about a $1.50 splurge. It's the only money I've spent to have food served to me in more than twelve weeks. It did occurred to me though that my frugality was a stronger motivator than any desire to curb my eating habits. I'm not overweight, and I think that's because I eat well and am reasonably active. But on reflection, a lot of my eating well is closely tied to my frugality. For instance, I garden, so we eat a lot of fresh and unprocessed vegetables. I cook almost every meal from scratch, so we don't eat much junk food. These practices are good for my body and good for my budget.

Anyway, that little incident just made me wonder about the connection between frugality and diet. For an extra $2, I probably would have gotten another 600 calories or so. That would have been 600 calories I didn't need. I was too cheap to do it, and that's good for me all the way around.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Phone Call Worth $56.20 Per Hour

Not long ago, we got our quarterly garbage bill from the township. It was just slightly higher than normal because of a mystifying charge of $2.81 in addition to the regular quarterly amount. I called to find out what it was. They'd charged me a late fee for paying late last quarter.

I happened to know that my last payment was delivered on time, because I pay it in person. To save the cost of a stamp, I simply bring the bill into the township office with a check for the exact amount. The office is located right next to the local library, which I visit weekly anyway. So I was in a pretty strong position to argue my case. As it turned out, I didn't need to argue at all, because the woman who answered the phone admitted that she couldn't see any reason why I was charged the late fee. She removed it without any fuss.

In previous years, I would have looked at that unexplained charge and wondered what it was, felt slightly annoyed about it, and would have felt that I should call and find out what was up with that. But then I would have procrastinated about it, and eventually I would have given up all intention of calling because the dollar amount was so low. With a shrug, I would have just written a check to cover the extra amount and told myself something along the lines of, "It's not worth the time to fight through layers of bureaucracy to get the charge removed. My time is more valuable than that." But in fact, my time has never been worth that much in terms of a paid wage.

As it turned out, the call took about three minutes and didn't involve a frustrating phone maze, poorly trained and indifferent employees, or the runaround. I just saved us $2.81 in three minutes of my time. That works out to $56.20 per hour. Actually, the equivalent of $56.20/hour after taxes. At our tax bracket, I would need a pre-tax hourly wage of $78 to match what I just saved with a three-minute phone call. I don't know about you, but I've never had a job that paid me $78 per hour.

So yeah, it's a small amount. Maybe even a trivial amount to some people. For me, that's another $2.81 that I don't have to divert from our extra principle payment for our mortgage this month. Granted, I can't repeat this to save us $78 worth of income hour after hour. It's still a good example of how doing the math can give you a different way to look at frugality. If someone offered you a low effort, perfectly legal way to earn $78/hour from the comfort of your own home, you'd probably do it, right? But how many of us would just pay the extra late fee because it's too much hassle to pursue an explanation for $2.81? Three years ago, I probably would have. Not today though.

Just to add another layer of perspective to this trivial amount, let's look at what that money could do. If I added just that small amount to my monthly mortgage payment, I'd save a whopping $910 in interest and reduce the term of my 30-year mortgage by a full 6 years. That seems incredible to me, even when I run the numbers. But that's the virtue of tiny amounts of extra money applied to principle early in the term of the mortgage. Less than three extra dollars per month would get me out of debt six years faster. Hard to believe isn't it?

We have an ambitious goal to repay our mortgage at a much faster rate than that even. But I crunch these numbers and present them here to illustrate the power of small sums. If you have a mortgage and you're reading this, you can probably scrounge up an extra $3 per month. Provided you start early in the term of your mortgage, even tiny amounts such as this can make a huge difference. Once again: have faith in the little things. They really do add up.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Garlic Harvest

We eat an inordinate amount of garlic in my household. Seriously. It's a good thing we both do, because if it were just one of us, the other would no doubt be knocked out by some wicked garlic breath. So last fall I decided to finally grow some. I ordered a couple pounds of seed garlic, choosing six different hardneck varieties. Hardnecks do better in cooler climates, but they don't store as well as the softneck types. Above is a picture of our garlic harvest, or most of it anyway. I've already set aside a few heads for seed stock to be planted in a few months.

I well remember planting day for the garlic bulbs last fall, because I threw my back out that morning while rummaging around in the chest freezer. It was an unseasonably warm mid-October day. By literally crawling around on my hands and knees, I got the garlic into the six rows of prepared earth, and then hobbled off to bed, and my heating pad, for a week. I hate throwing my back out. Anyway...the garlic repaid my grit by being a remarkably trouble-free plant. All I did was mulch the ground heavily with leaves once I was up and about. After that I completely ignored the beds until spring.

The bulbs sent up a few inches' worth of green shoots before winter began in earnest. The little shoots never seemed to mind the cold and snow. They looked like little above-ground monitoring stations for the underground bunkers below. By May the shoots were tall and had started to form scapes, which are one way garlic can reproduce. The other is through division of the bulbs, just as daffodils and tulips do. The green scapes are edible when they first form, so I cut a few to add to stir-fries. It's wonderful early season garden produce - always welcome after a winter light on fresh green things. As the scapes continue to grow and develop, they get tougher and less toothsome.

Harvesting went pretty well, and was easily accomplished with a pitchfork and some patience. Garlic requires very gentle handling during harvest as it can bruise very easily, which will promote early spoilage. Then the garlic needs to be hung up to "cure" in a shaded and well-ventilated area for a few weeks. My records aren't exact, but I think I got about 11 pounds of garlic from 2 pounds of planting stock. Not bad for a first effort!

It's incredibly satisfying to look at my cured and trimmed garlic and know that I'm well stocked, for the next couple of months anyway. What was a little hard to do though was to set aside part of my harvest as planting stock for this fall. It was especially hard because I know I have to choose the largest and best heads of garlic to re-plant. It's painful to "give up" such beautiful, heavy heads of garlic. My husband joked about breaking in to the seed garlic stash when we've eaten up the rest of it, but I gave him the hairy eyeball. That seed garlic is sacrosanct! The original planting stock order didn't come cheap. With shipping, it came to around $30, if I recall correctly. The frugal blackbelt in me resolved that I would make that $30 serve indefinitely by never buying garlic seed stock again.

So I decided that I would plant a few more bulbs of each variety than I did last year. That way we'll have a few more heads of garlic in our harvest next year. And then I'll do it again next year, planting more and more garlic each year while still having plenty to eat. Keeping records on garden stuff hasn't yet developed into anything like a strong suit for me. But I'm planning to record the date that we run out of our homegrown garlic. I hope with this plan to progressively expand our garlic planting that we can push that "out of garlic" date back a little farther each year. Given that we're growing hardneck varieties that don't keep as well as some, we'll probably never make it all the way through the year without needing to buy some garlic. But we can certainly aim to grow as much as we can eat before it spoils on us. When we reach that point, there's always garlic powder as an option.

I wish that I had tried my hand at growing garlic sooner. It takes up relatively little space in the garden. Had I known how readily it grows and how little care it needs, I would have been growing it for many years. If you have a garlic habit to feed and a few square feet of earth, why not give garlic a try?

Related posts:

The Promise of Garlic
The Limits of Garlic

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How I Benefit from My Local Taxes

My husband and I bought our first home less than two years ago. With that purchase came the pride of homeownership (even though we owe the bank big time), a fair amount of maintenance responsibility, and coming in on the enjoyability spectrum just ahead of monthly mortgage payments, three hefty tax bills per year. We pay property tax to our county, a separate school tax to the school district we live in, and income tax to our township.

Since we don't have kids, we don't get much benefit out of the school tax. I am hopeful though that current education is good enough that those kids won't screw up when they're measuring out my meds fifty years from now. The county provides some necessary but not particularly exciting services for our tax dollars, such as a police force and snow plowing in the winter time. The local fire department is not supported by tax dollars. It's an all volunteer force that's supported by donations and fundraisers.

Where we really see a big payoff for our involuntarily spent money is at the township level. Here our tax dollars are converted into "free" services that I have found incredibly valuable. We have a top notch new library that I visit just about every week. I borrow DVD's for free, get all the books I want to read, and even pick up a few magazines now and then. I've gotten to a first-name basis with several staff members, including the woman who handles inter-library loans. While the library's catalog is not vast, she can usually obtain any book and most DVD's I want within ten days or so. Sure, it's not instant gratification, and I don't get to keep the books. But with her help and the library's resources I've managed to reduce my reading budget to nearly nothing, and I've put my Netflix account on indefinite hold. My husband regularly prowls through the music cd's. So we've spent almost nothing for our music over the past year.

The next biggest benefit is the free compost and mulch that goes into my garden. This is a precious resource for a gardener. Now that we have a beater pickup truck, it's possible to make one trip to the yard waste facility and get quite a large load of this stuff. It's not organic, but it's free! True, we have to load it and unload it ourselves, at least most of the time. But it's enjoyable outdoor work, and the mulch saves me a lot of weeding time and effort later on. Apparently there are times of the year when the supply is so abundant that they'll load a pickup truck for a nominal $5 fee. That's an option I'd be happy to jump on. So I'll be keeping my eye out for that offer.

The last area I see real value for our township tax dollars happens in the fall. If I wish, I can simply rake all our leaves out to the streetfront, where they'll eventually be sucked up by the giant vacuum cleaner trucks. Leaf raking is a serious fall chore around here. For the first few weeks it's enjoyable to work outside in the crisp autumn air. But as the leaves continue to fall and fall and fall, it gets a little repetitive and frustrating. (We have a surprising number of very large trees on our not very big property.) It would be even more frustrating if I had to bend down and scoop up all those leaves and bag them armful by armful. Being able to just rake them to the edge of the property is a nice pass. I keep a supply of leaves for additional mulching around the garden. But the township handles the excess for me, and then adds it to the compost they give out in the spring. We can also take any branches knocked down in storms to the township to be chipped into the communal mulch pile.

I've tried to guesstimate the value of the services and goods that I now get for "free" from the township. I used to have a fairly serious book-buying habit, which had long been exempted from austerity measures. My husband had a similar arrangement for his music budget. Very conservatively, I'd guess we spent $1000 per year on books and music. As for compost and mulch, I had previously used the trick of showing up early at the hardware store to pick up the torn open bags for half price. But even so, each large bag would routinely cost me $1.50 to $2.50. Now I pay nothing most of the time. I'd happily pay $5 for a pickup bed load of either compost or mulch. Considering how much free compost and mulch we've used, we must be getting at least a $100 value each year. So, at the township level, I'd say we're getting a direct return of $1100 or more per year on our income tax. Not bad!

It's useful to remind myself of these benefits when the tax bills come in. It takes the sting out of it to some extent. What tax-funded services are available in your area? Do you take advantage of them? How much money do you save by doing so?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Using the Numbers for Motivation

Sticking with frugality sometimes gets a little wearisome. Whether it's trying to live or eat on a small budget, or trying to come up with money to pay down debts, living frugally is a long term game for most of us. I think I have it easier than most people who are drawn to read or write about frugality, but I still look for ways to keep myself motivated. I'm really not a math buff at all, but I have found ways of using numbers to motivate myself.

Recently I've seen several personal finance bloggers who freely share monthly updates on their personal net worth, or their debt load, or both. I think this is brave of them, but from my perspective it can be a little dangerous for their readers. The temptation, of course, is for the reader to compare their net worth, or debt load to the the blogger's reported figures. This can take them down two equally detrimental paths. Either the reader is better off than the blogger, and feels a little smug; or the reader is in much worse shape financially than the blogger, and feels depressed or hopeless about his or her situation, and possibly envious of the blogger. Neither of these reactions is useful for the reader who wants to maintain a frugal lifestyle. In my experience, comparing one's own financial situation to someone else's is rarely profitable.

On the other hand, the benefits to the blogger are obvious. Making a practice of posting a monthly or quarterly update on your own finances is a good discipline that will, one hopes, keep you honest with yourself. The key difference here is that the bloggers are comparing their current financial state to their own previous financial states. Comparing yourself to yourself is extremely useful as it lets you track progress and can provide plenty of motivation. Monitoring your finances in this way also makes it much easier to set a series of short term goals, increasing your chances of reaching your overall goal sooner.

But I'm going to take the argument one step farther than that. If your finances are such that your assets include stocks, your net worth is subject to the rise and fall of the stock market. And there's almost nothing that you can do about that other than invest as wisely as you can. So my suggestion is to watch that number, but largely ignore it for the purposes of a monthly or quarterly calculation. Leave it out of your calculations altogether. Instead, focus on your total debt. That's the number that you have the most direct control over. If you're living within your means and practicing frugality, that number should, barring something like a house purchase, always go down. The lower the number, the better you should feel.

If your income and living expenses are relatively stable, over time the month-to-month reductions in your debt should get larger and larger. I remember when I was in my early twenties and I decided to get out of credit card debt that I actually looked forward to making my monthly payments. Because it meant that my balance was going down, and that next month I'd be racking up less owed in interest. I feel the same way now about our mortgage. I feel good when I'm able to scrounge up a few extra dollars to send off to our lender, no matter how small the amount. Getting to nothing owed on my credit cards felt FANTASTIC. I think it'll feel even better when we get to that point on our mortgage.

So set up a simple spreadsheet for yourself, and create a graph that shows your total debt going down, down, down. When you feel like you've had it up to your eyeballs with frugality, or when you look ahead and see only years of obligatory financial discipline in your life, turn back to that graph and think about the progress you've already made. Your actions, and efforts, and way of thinking about money have already made that much of a difference. Each payment you make cuts down on the interest you'll pay in the future. Remind yourself that steady progress is real progress.

For extra motivation, run some additional calculations. Keep a separate graph of the amount of interest you're charged each month. Or see how much more of your standard payment is being applied to principle from month to month. You can watch those numbers shrink or grow for extra cheer.