Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Upside of Down, & Longterm Plan Musings

Well, things do not look at all encouraging in the markets or the economy as a whole. The one silver lining that I can find right now is that the price of oil has dropped to around $96 a barrel as I write this. How quickly we rejigger our ideas about "good" oil prices! Like many people in the northeastern US, we heat our home with oil. So right now feels like a "good" time to top off our fuel supply for the winter.

We're equipped with only one smallish oil tank, giving us just a 275 gallon capacity. Right now our one tank is at 3/8 full. Our delivery service hits us with an extra delivery charge if we don't have at least 175 gallons delivered. In other words, we have to get down to about 1/4 of a tank before we can dodge that extra fee, which of course we want to do. They never completely top off the tank when they deliver. I guess they don't want to risk overfilling and causing a spill. Even if we start the winter with a full tank, we'll almost certainly need another delivery to get us through 'til spring. Of course, I pull out the stops as far as frugal tricks go to save money on heating expenses (on which, more to come soon). All the same, at today's prices we're looking at a cost of at least $1200 to make it through the winter. Ouch.

Our backup heating system is a propane fireplace insert in the new addition of our home. It would do for us in a power loss of short duration, say five days at the outside. Our stovetop runs on propane from the same tank, so we can cook and heat part of our house at least for a little while without electricity. We're very close to a major hospital, and I'm pretty sure we're on the same electrical grid, because we've never lost power for more than a few seconds, when others not all that far away have gone without for several hours. So chances are that things would have to be very bad before we would go without electricity for any significant length of time. Still, our propane supply is in small tanks we have to refill ourselves, and propane is a fossil fuel, which means it too will be problematic in the years ahead.

Even if we get a "deal" on our heating fuel oil this month, I look ahead and know with certainty that we need to find some other way to keep ourselves warm through the many winters to come. Our home is not well situated for an outdoor wood furnace; the neighbor's houses are too close in most directions to easily meet code with one of these. We could put in an indoor wood stove, but we have no significant supply of our own wood. So that would mean buying wood, which I expect to go up in price through the years. And then we'd have the mess of an indoor fire. Regionally, we're in a marginal area for solar power, especially in winter, and our micro-region isn't all that great for wind either.

Given all these imperfect solutions, I'm thinking about the outdoor furnace for the long term. I've seen one of these at work in the home of an acquaintance, and they seem quite manageable for our current lifestyle of two healthy, reasonably active, youngish adults, with at least one person home most of the day. Getting one would involve some retrofitting of the house, which I know would not be cheap. In fact, I'm sure it would be downright expensive. And it would lock us in to buying our fuel no less than we need to buy oil. Perhaps most worrisome is that the furnace still needs some electricity to pump heated water to and from the house. In the very long view, I can imagine a world where that's a problem. But at least it offers the prospect of clean heat (both in terms of pollution and indoor mess) and a renewable fuel source. We could work on generating a little electricity with solar power, and sourcing cheap or free firewood too, though I imagine through the years that market will become much tighter. Another downside is that I'll never be able to cook on an outdoor furnace.

There just aren't any perfect options for us. Long term we'd like to build a home on our land. The plan is to build a masonry heater into the core of our home, as the house goes up. The advantages are several. Masonry heaters are incredibly clean and efficient, they can be built to include a cookstove, they don't need any electricity to run, and our land is very well situated to take advantage of plentiful hardwood to burn. Alas, we aren't in that house yet. And truthfully, with the way things are going, I'm not confident we ever will be in that house. But we can hope and plan.

What are your plans for your longterm energy needs?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fall Gleaning

I'm really getting into this whole feed ourselves on the cheap thing. Last year we pressed cider from our own apples with a group of three other apple tree owners. It was a blast. This year our tree is bearing, but not quite as well as last year it seems. And at least one of the participants from last year is reporting that their tree is bearing very little this year - not enough to press for cider.

Some relatives of mine, however, told me that their neighbors have apple and pear trees from which they do not collect the fruit, and that the neighbors say the fruit is up for grabs. I stopped by their place yesterday morning with just a little time to spare before I had to start a full baking day. Ambitiously, I'd brought a 5-gallon bucket, but I wasn't even able to fill that much. I'll need to return with a ladder to get to the bulk of the apples, which are very high up. Still, I got about 4.5 pounds of apples and - even better - 3.5 pounds of bosc pears for about 10 minutes of "work." That was all I could easily reach with a small stepstool. It boggles my mind that the neighbors don't want these fruits. I suppose it's all to my benefit, and it's nice that they don't spray their trees.

It's true that the fruits have bruises and worm holes and even some pecks from birds. The fruit will need to be washed and the spoiled parts cut out. I guess I'm just not that fussy when it comes to free, local, unsprayed food. It makes me sad to think how many people would spurn this food just because it's not "perfect." Americans have a curiously inverted squeamishness about the food they eat. Apples with sooty mold (which is harmless and washes off easily) or worm holes are to be rejected. But meat from factory farms (sick, stressed animals in literally shitty environments) and high speed meat packing plants (dangerous, unhygienic conditions) is A-okay. I doubt I'll save these until we gather our own apples, which won't come in for at least another three weeks. Guess I'll have to figure out something yummy to make with them. I've had French apple gallette on the brain for a while. We'll see...

The apples from the top of that neighbor's tree will nicely supplement the crop from our one old apple tree. My relatives also have an old hickory tree. If I find the time I'll go poke around and see if the squirrels have overlooked any of the nuts. I might see if a post on craigslist will turn up more conveniently located gleaning opportunities. Can't hurt to ask.

I didn't really intend for this to be a frugal food blog. But I suppose, given my nearly pathological obsession with food, it shouldn't surprise me that it's going that way. I will try to work in a few posts that aren't directly related to eating, even though that's nearly always what's on my mind. It's about 6:30 in the morning as I write this and I'm acutely aware that I haven't yet decided what to have for dinner. Having so much food in a chest freezer does that to me. (I need lead time for thawing.)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Salvaged Food = Chocolate Cake

I took two short trips away from home this month. When I got home from the second one on Monday, I found that the better part of half a gallon of milk was right on the edge of drinkability. It was starting to go sour. It's important to remember that just because old milk tastes off, it's not dangerous - so long as we're talking about pasteurized milk. My milk was pasteurized, and it had been in the fridge for a few weeks. There's nothing in pasteurized milk that has soured which can make you sick. It's a great ingredient to cook with.

Aside from the milk, I've had the last two oversized zucchini from the garden sitting in my kitchen for about a month now. They're sufficiently large that they stabilized enough to behave like winter squash, meaning that they won't rot anytime too soon. But they're also tender enough that there's no reason the flesh couldn't be used for baking. I think you see where this is going, right?

I'd heard about chocolate zucchini cake before, and I recently stumbled upon a recipe for chocolate buttermilk cake. Being the foolhardy baker that I am, I saw no reason not to combine and substitute as my supplies indicated. So I whipped up two chocolate cakes in tube pans on Tuesday night. And boy did they turn out well. Here's what I did.

Chocolate-Zucchini-Sour Milk Cake


2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa, plus extra for dusting
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups sour milk (or buttermilk)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups sugar
6 oz. (1 1/2 sticks, or 3/4 cup) butter or shortening, at room temperature.
3 eggs
2-3 cups shredded zucchini


Grease two 9" cake pans or one tube pan and dust with unsweetened cocoa. Arrange a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F.

Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the sour milk and the vanilla extract in a small bowl. In yet another large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter, then beat the mixture for 3 minutes at high speed until it is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the two other mixtures into the butter mixture alternately and in stages, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and blending well between each addition. Mix in the shredded zucchini by hand.

Pour the batter into the cake pans or tube pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out mostly clean, with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. The tube pan will require at least 55 minutes of baking. Cool the cake or cakes for ten minutes in their pans. Remove them from the pans and cool on racks for at least one hour for cakes or two hours for the tube cake. Dust with powdered sugar or frost as desired. The cakes can be wrapped with plastic wrap when thoroughly cooled and frozen for up to three months.

I like this recipe because it feels like I made something yummy and even mildly healthy out of materials that might otherwise have been thrown away. The sourness of the milk vanished into the moist luxury of this cake. If anything it just contributed a slight tang to the overall flavor. I'm not partial to frosting, so I just enjoyed the cake as is. It did suggest to me that it would really go nicely with a scoop of vanilla ice cream though. I put in only two cups of zucchini in my recipe, and I couldn't even detect the zucchini in the cake. I will definitely increase it to 3 cups per batch next time. This is a sneaky way of using up this notoriously prolific vegetable, and also of getting finicky eaters to consume a little vegetable. My guess is they'd never even notice if you didn't say anything.

I still have some more sour milk that needs to be used up. I'm reminded of the blini that I enjoyed in people's homes in Russia. Over there they deliberately let the milk go sour so that they can use it in the blini recipe. Then they eat them with berries and honey or smetana, a heavy product similar to creme fraiche. I'm going to find a blini recipe soon and then see how well they freeze!

Related post:
Sour Milk Potato Biscuit-Muffins

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gardening Notes

This has been our second year gardening in our new home. I'm still figuring out what will work here and what won't. This year we cleared and planted the largest garden bed I have ever worked. And consequently, we've eaten much more homegrown produce than we ever have before. Some things have worked out great, and others not so much. Mostly this is due to my own mistakes, inexperience, and inattention. I overstocked the garden with too many plants; I didn't know exactly how many hours of sunlight each part of our new garden bed would get; and I definitely didn't do enough proactive weed control.

I keep telling myself that I need to sit down and make some garden records so that I'll have them handy in mid-winter when it's time to plan next year's garden. But summer is such a busy time for a gardener in my part of the world that I keep putting it off with the best of intentions. So I'll take a stab at outlining some notes right here:

Onions. We need to plant them next year. A lot of them. Onions are one of the very few fresh foods we're still buying from the farmers' market and the grocery store. We use them constantly in our cooking. I need them to prepare my tomato sauce for canning. If we had our own supply, I'm not sure we'd go to the store more than once a month. I've resisted onions until now because I've had mysteriously poor results with root crops. Everyone tells me they're easy to grow. It just seems like I have no natural affinity for things that grow under the earth. I need to work on that.

Tomatoes. I overplanted this year. Our tomato plants were like overgrown, surly teenagers with in-your-face attitudes. They're obstructionist. They took over the neighborhoods of other plants, and they didn't take the hint from all the pruning I've done. Next year, I really need to rein it in on the number I plant. I'm going to say 4-5 paste tomatoes for sauce; 4-5 beefsteaks for eating and sauce supplementation; and two cherry tomato plants. They also need to be moved into a more central part of the garden to give them more sun. Most importantly, I'll space them all at least five feet apart in every direction.

Squash and melons. These suckers just take up an enormous amount of real estate in the garden. We're enjoying the sugar pumpkins, but given that they don't keep as well as most winter squash, we've really got too many of them. Also, I need to start them later so that they mature when the weather is starting to turn cool. Summer temperatures shorten their keeping time. So a late May or even June planting for next year. The jack-o-lantern pumpkins did just fine. But we could do more with the amount of space they hogged up. The melons produced very little and should probably get the ax, even though we're fond of them. Next year I'll probably cut it back to two sugar pumpkin plants and leave it at that. I'll be strongly tempted to plant a few watermelons though, so that's something I'll have to struggle with.

Beans. Yes, these were remarkably easy to grow, even if they did take some insect damage. I don't care for green beans, so we grew Cherokee Trail of Tears beans for soup. I plan to save some of the harvest to re-plant next year. Unless we hate the beans when we turn them into soup, of course. But how could a bean be bad? Also, I'm going to add another heirloom bean to the line up: the Hutterite Soup bean, which is plump and white. Both varieties will be given taller supports to grow up so they get all the sun and space they want. It's nice to be able to allot more space to a plant that doesn't mean a bigger footprint in the garden. The beans will get more vertical space, and provide a light sunscreen to the lettuces.

Lettuce. I allotted too many square feet to lettuce and really didn't do anything at all about planting a late summer/early fall crop this year. Next year, I will try to summon the will to plant a fall crop. And the only space I'll give the lettuces will be under the bean poles. It should be enough. I'll probably stick with the many seed varieties I already have. I like a very diverse bowl of greens, and the darker the better, for my tastes.

Potatoes. I've been very happy with this year's potato crop, my first ever. Now I just need to figure out how exactly I should store my seed potatoes for next year. (Any hints, readers?) I'm going to try the suggestion of planting my potatoes in buckets next year. I'm collecting 5-gallon buckets when we dumpster dive, though we aren't finding as many as last year. And I've also asked friends and family that keep indoor cats to save me the buckets that their kitty litter comes in. The upside of this will be that the potatoes will be much, much easier to mound so that they produce better - just add more dirt to the bucket. And their greens won't trail all over the garden quite so much. Harvesting will also be a cinch: simply dump out the bucket. The downside is more watering than this year, since the potatoes won't be able to sink roots into the earth.

Kale & Chard. We sure do loves us some kale. And we like our chard too. But next year some refinements are definitely in order. First off, the two plants will be well separated, so that I can liberally dose the kale with my homemade bug spray. This year it's been a struggle to keep the spray off the interplanted kale, which just shrivels up whenever it gets hit with this spray. Also, I've found it very much a hassle to clean the chard. It really takes quite a bit of doing. The kale takes a lot less work to clean, and we prefer it to chard. So probably less chard will be planted next year.

Leeks. We've barely harvested any leeks yet. They are a very long season crop and they've done very well. We may cut back slightly on the number we plant if we'll also have onions. But we'll definitely still plant them. They're fantastic in soups and they can stay in the ground a long time.

Garlic. I've already taken steps to plant more bulbs this fall (ack! just a couple weeks from now!) than I did last year, by setting aside a larger number of cloves from this year's harvest. We've been eating our garlic since early in the summer, and we have at least a few more months' supply laid in. But clearly we need more. The plan is to increase our yields and our re-planting stock over the next few years until we have as much as we can eat before it starts to sprout.

Ground Cherries. These plants volunteered so enthusiastically in our garden that we're strongly considering planting a few of them deliberately next year. Given how well they did with no help at all from me, I imagine they'd be very productive if we gave them their own bit of earth. I also like the fact that they are still producing in mid to late September.

Bush zucchini. Too many plants this year. Next year no more than three, and that's probably too many. And I now have a hot tip on fighting the powdery mildew that attacks the leaves of all my squash plants: well diluted milk, sprayed directly on the leaves, and reapplied after rains.

Asparagus, Rhubarb & Jerusalem Artichokes. I've procrastinated and procrastinated about starting an asparagus bed for so many years. Partly it was because we were never settled long enough in any one place for me to expect to see a return on my efforts. (Asparagus plants take three years to produce in good quantities.) Also, we had a cat who loved asparagus and would not take no for an answer.So I figured he'd devour any early asparagus shoots that came up the first or second year, thereby damaging the young plant. Sadly, he died at the age of seventeen earlier this year. (He's still alive in this picture, if you can't tell.) The silver lining of his death is that it may finally be time to start my long dreamt of bed. Rhubarb is another perennial vegetable, and I'm very much in the mode of work once, reap many times. I would need to make an effort to find ways of enjoying rhubarb, because thus far it has not been one of our favorites. But I'm willing to give any perennial vegetable a fair shake, given the potential returns. Jerusalem artichokes are another perennial vegetable that I'd like to try. I'm pretty sure I've eaten them before, and like them.

Peppers. We need a lot more poblano/ancho peppers. And we need to pick them earlier next year to encourage better production. The peppers, I'm afraid, got ignored for a while there simply because they could be. Other squeaky wheel garden residents demanded our attention. But we really like these peppers, especially when we smoke them with our apple wood chips, or roast them and stuff them, and we should have more than three plants next year.

Eggplant. Though we both like eggplant, we didn't grow any this year. My husband wants to grow some, and they should do well in our area, which features very hot summers. We plan to try a long, thin Asian variety and one of the Italian "graffiti" types as well, two plants of each sort so that we can see how they do.

Beets & Parsnips. We need more of both of these root vegetables, and I really want to work on two separate crops of the former. We love beets, in borsch, salads, and pyttipanna, and they are mostly trouble free crops. They'll store well too if we have an abundant fall crop. We enjoy parsnips, and I simply adore the fact that they can be ignored until the frost sets in, when everything else in the garden is done. Definitely we need more of both of these next year.

Culinary Herbs. I added a couple of perennial herbs to the garden this year: thyme and oregano. We already had sage, and I transplanted chunks of our chives to new locations. I would love to find a tasty variety of rosemary that is hardy for zone 6. We've had no luck at all with bringing rosemary inside and keeping it alive through the winter. Of course I will continue to grow basil next year, and I will plant more of the purple varieties which did so well for me this year.

Fruit Trees. Even though we eventually plan to build a home on a separate piece of land, we're looking ahead with serious jitters, given the economy these days. So we're considering hedging our bets and replacing some of the non-edible landscaping on our property with dwarf fruit trees. We have a black cherry tree (no edible fruit), an old white lilac, and a star magnolia that could all be cut down and replaced with cherry or pear trees. It would be a shame about the old white lilac, but it only flowers briefly each year and it occupies a prime location as far as sun exposure goes. The black cherry is tall, shades much of the yard, and if it comes down in a storm it'll damage the garage. So it's a prime candidate for cutting. The star magnolia gets only so-so sun in its location, but we could trim another tree to give it more exposure. I like the idea of having cherries and pears because the fruit will come in either before or after the bulk of the garden produce.

In general, I'm looking to spread the effort of harvesting out a little more in time. August was a bit too frantic for my taste, with trying to keep up with the harvest. I'd also like to get more serious about keeping a record of how much I harvest of each crop, which goes against my wing-it tendencies. Further, I would like to put more thought and effort into root cellaring or some other long term storage that requires little energy input. I would like to be able to feed ourselves with homegrown produce over the winter months so far as possible. A small hoop house may also be a consideration for next year. The ultimate goal is to grow what we eat and eat what we grow.

-Well, there are my late summertime thoughts on next year's garden. We'll see where my head's at around the middle of February when cabin fever is at its worst.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Finer Points of Pizza

I had some questions about my homemade pizza, so here's an outline on it that will probably end up being rather lengthy. I do tend to go on and on about food, as anyone who knows me will attest. I'm not going to lay claim to any kind of expertise on making pizza, and I won't touch the word "authentic" with a ten-foot pole in this post. But I do make pizza quite often and we know what we like. We think it turns out pretty well this way.

Thin crust, light toppings, high heat. These three principles pretty much sum up the way we cook our pizza. Let's start with the crust.

I make my own dough at home, using a recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart, though I used to buy it pre-made (not pre-baked). I tried the doughs of several grocery store chains, but I thought that Trader Joe's had the best pizza dough. At the time it was a buck a bag, and I could get four single-serving, thin crust pizzas out of that, which meant a pretty sweet 25 cent per serving cost. Just about any pizza dough will freeze beautifully. Google for a basic recipe, or turn to the library for recipes that might come from "an expert." You should plan ahead so that frozen dough thaws gently and has time to come up to room temperature before you begin to work it. In a pinch, you can speed up thawing in cool to tepid water. Don't use warm or hot water as this will mess with the yeast in the dough. Letting it thaw in the fridge is far preferable though. If you buy or make your own dough, consider portioning it into 4-6 ounce pieces (about the size of a small orange) so that you can thaw it quickly and use just as much as you want at any given time. Premade dough will keep in the fridge for three days or the freezer for three months. Anytime you make your own pizza dough at home, I recommend you double or triple the recipe and freeze the extra, provided you've got enough freezer space.

For thin crust pizza, I use a rolling pin, though the experts would recoil in horror at this idea. I don't care. It works for me. If I'm baking on a baking stone (recommended), I roll the dough out in a circle. If I'm cooking on a baking sheet (decent), I roll out two pieces of dough into long rectangles so that two pizzas fit on the sheet side by side. In each case, it works best to give the dough a basic shaping with my fingers. Don't knead the dough at all just before you shape it. Just hold it in your fingers and gently work it and squeeze it into a roughly round or rectangular shape. From there, use the rolling pin to thin the crust.

Once the crust is shaped, you need to put it on either the baking sheet or a pizza paddle (peel) that will let you slide it onto your baking stone. In both cases, you want cornmeal underneath it. The cornmeal will keep the crust just off the baking sheet so that it doesn't burn. And it will act like little ball bearings on the peel so that it can slide easily onto the stone. So scatter some cornmeal over whatever surface is appropriate. If your crust is a rectangle, it should be pretty easy to pick it up with both hands and arrange it on the sheet. If it's round, fold it in half and then in quarters. Pick it up gently, lay it on your cornmeal dusted peel, and unfold it so that it lays flat. By the way, my frugal solution to the need for a pizza peel is simply to cut a large piece of corrugated cardboard so that one edge is rounded, roughly matching the curve of the baking stone. It works fine and stores with my large baking sheets.

Toppings. I like to give my pizza a good foundation by brushing a layer of seasoned olive oil over the crust before anything else goes on. I coarsely chop garlic and heat it gently in about 1/3 cup of olive oil along with a pinch of chili pepper flakes. It only takes a couple of minutes, and then the garlic chunks become toppings in their own right. Brush the olive oil over the crust, moving the brush from the center of your crust outward towards the edges. If you brush the other way, the brush will tend to pull the springy dough inward so that it contracts and gets smaller. The oil gives flavor and forms a partial moisture barrier between the dough and the wet toppings.

Top your pizza with whatever you like, but use a light hand. Thin crust pizzas simply cannot stand up to a lot of wet sauce or cheese. Less is more. Let that be your mantra, within reason. Because I bake in a very hot oven, I try to make sure my toppings reach the very edge of the crust. This helps keep the outer edge from burning before the cheese gets bubbly and browned.

We've tried lots of wacky stuff and it's all good. Thinly shaved potato or zucchini rounds, blanched bacon cut into lardons, pesto, fresh herbs, blanched cooking greens or cabbage, cherry tomatoes, squash flowers - you name it. I particularly like arugula thrown on the hot pizza just as it comes out of the oven. The greens wilt slightly without shriveling too much. I'm also very fond of sage on a pizza. A very wide variety of cheeses will work too. We're partial to mixing cheeses and like to include a smoked cheddar or smoked mozzarella in the lineup. Trader Joe's has a quatro formaggio mix that works very well indeed. Experiment to see what you like. For best frugal practices, buy your cheese in bulk and shred it. You can freeze shredded cheese and it will be perfectly fine in any preparation where it will be melted before being served.

High heat. I bake my pizza at about 510-525F. This seems very high to a lot of people. The ovens in professional pizzerias in Italy are frequently fired up to 650 degrees or higher. A lightly topped thin crust pizza will cook in 10 minutes or less at such temperatures, producing a wonderfully crisp crust. Besides, who wants to wait any longer than necessary for great pizza? Cooking directly on a pre-heated baking stone will mean a cooking time of about 5-7 minutes depending on how thin the crust is and how heavy the toppings. Cooking on a large baking sheet will take a few minutes longer, all other things being equal.

In any case, you'll want to keep a close eye on your pizza, which is easier to do if your oven has a window in the door and an oven light. If you're uncertain, check the pizza after five minutes using the professional quick peek method: open the door for only a second and close it immediately. Get a good look during that moment when the door is open, but think about what you saw after you close the door. That way you don't let all the heat escape from the oven while you mull your decision. You can get into the habit of this pretty easily if you practice. After pulling out your first pizza, let the oven and the baking stone come back up to temperature before putting in another pizza. I recommend you cook a few extra pizzas while you've got the oven heated up. When they cool, put them in the fridge either whole or in slices. They make great leftovers. Most of the time I'll happily eat it cold the next day. But if you want it hot, slices will heat up nicely on the stove top in a preheated cast iron skillet. If you've left the pizza whole, you may want to put the hot skillet into a hot oven after placing the pizza in the skillet and sprinkling it with a little water.

All things considered, homemade pizza is tastier and cheaper than anything I can get my hands on from a restaurant in my area. It's a frugal meal, and one that works well when trying to serve a meatless meal to carnivores.

So, what are your favorite pizza toppings? Do you favor thin or thick crust pizza? Do tell!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wearing It Out & Making It Do: Simple Repairs

Frugality is a many faceted approach to life. It can include a huge variety of activities - from clipping coupons, to shopping around for the best deals on major purchases, and from doing it yourself, to digging yourself out of consumer debt. A lot of the time it's not glamorous, and it nearly always goes against the grain of consumerism in a culture that urges us to spend, spend, spend!

One of the lesser aspects of frugality that I was slow to embrace was the practice of really wearing out material goods, and making them do for longer than the expected useful life. I suppose this practice just isn't as thrilling as getting a good deal when it's time to spend money, or knocking an extra chunk off the principle of a mortgage. After all, it's a little bit like doing nothing: it's just finding a way not to spend any money, while making do with what we've already got.

But having come around to it, I now really see the value in making things last through small repair jobs. For instance, this is our hand-me-down wheelbarrow. There was nothing seriously wrong with it. But it had a crack about two or three inches long on the front end of the basin. I looked at the crack carefully and decided that it would be a fairly easy fix, using a basic sewing technique. I carefully burned pairs of holes on either side of the plastic, then ran lengths of small gauge wire through each pair of holes and twisted them tightly together underneath, creating a kind of suture. The twisted ends of the wires were sharp, and located just where someone would be likely to grab the rim of the basin. So I thought about how to remedy that for a while. I decided that a little bit of hot glue melted over the sharp wires would provide sufficient protection and stay in place. I got out the hot glue gun and covered each sharp point with a dollop of melted glue. Even without that simple repair, which probably took no more than 45 minutes of my time, we would have had a pretty good wheel barrow for free. The repair cost only pennies in materials, and it has kept the crack from progressing any further during the two years we've had it. I see no reason to believe we won't be able to use it for many more years.

Here's our teapot, which gets daily use year round, except for summer time when I brew sun tea in a big glass jar. Sometime last year the lid fell off as I was draining the last of the tea from it, and broke on our countertop. There was a time when I would have just gone shopping for a new teapot. Teapots do wear out eventually, I can assure you. But this one still has years of use in it. So we glued the pieces of the lid back together. It may not be as good as new, but it'll serve just fine until the thermal stress from daily hot water baths takes its toll on the body of the pot.

My husband is a handy sort. He fixes all kinds of things that would intimidate me too much to even tinker with. Things with gears, and valves, and circuits. I'm really grateful to have this skill set in my mate. It's not one that I would be eager to pursue on my own. His attitude is: it's already busted, so why not try messing with it? As a philosophy, this is pretty unassailable. More often than not, when something breaks he'll eventually get around to taking it apart and trying to fix it. It might take him a while, and the first attempt might not succeed. But usually, in his own good time, he can fix things. Recently he's fixed my leaking garden hose spray nozzle, our busted paper shredder, and an alarm clock that went on the fritz. Handsome is as handsome does, wouldn't you say?

Repairing things is one of the ways that creativity and ingenuity come into living a frugal life in a big way. Too often there's little advice available to those who want to repair things. Our disposable culture is at least partly to blame for this. "Throw it out and get a new one" has become the lamentable standard practice. It's well to remember that it wasn't always thus. Those who want to try fixing things instead of throwing them away have to summon a little gumption, and gather their wits about them. The results may not always be aesthetically pleasing. But I've found that the satisfaction of accomplishment and thrift from repairing things is its own reward. That fondness for repaired objects more than compensates for the imperfect appearance.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Harvest Meal: Garden Pizza

We got home from our Maine vacation very late on Sunday night. On Monday I was reminded by our mostly empty refrigerator what I good job I'd done of using stuff up before we went away. In search of something good to eat, I turned to the garden and our chest freezer. The garden knows that summer is close to being over, but it's still producing well. And in the chest freezer, I found several pre-portioned balls of my homemade pizza dough. Garden pizzas were on the menu for Monday night's dinner.

Here's one sauced with a homemade sage pesto. The toppings include purple basil, arugula sylvetta, Peacevine cherry tomatoes, and garlic - all from our garden.

This one was a new experiment, based on our recent harvest of All Blue potatoes (not quite living up to their name) and some Sangres (white flesh, red skins). Even sliced so thinly on a pizza, the creamy texture of the Sangres was striking. The All Blues had a slightly fruity-floral taste to them. I tossed the sliced potatoes with garlic, olive oil, and thyme from the garden before putting them on the pizza. This one is actually a vegan pizza because I didn't put any cheese on it.

This one's a "white" pizza: no sauce, just cheese, tomatoes, basil and arugula thrown on after it came out of the oven.

Leftovers were delicious today at lunch. I always make a few extra pizzas when I fire the oven up that hot. It sure is nice to whip up a meal like this one with help from the garden and the freezer. It beats having to run to the store immediately after coming home from a longish trip.

Other harvest meals:
Saag Paneer
Egg & Chard Curry
Peanut Noodles with Garden Vegetables
Fusilli with Tuscan Kale in a Creamy Tomato Sauce
Vegetable Soup with Lamb Stock
Pumpkin-Sage Penne Pasta
Kale & Barley Soup

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Off to Maine!

I'm taking a brief but genuine vacation this week. I'll be meeting my husband in Maine when his current business trip ends. I have close family up there, so it's a great excuse for me to see more of this wonderful state. I've only been there twice, and fairly briefly. Our chickens will be tended during our absence by a friend who also has hens. So I'll be taking care of her girls later this month when she goes away. It's a chicken-sitting barter arrangement. I've picked the tomato plants as clean as I can, so not too much should go to waste while I'm gone. We have a few special plans for our four-day Maine getaway, some of which I hope to share here when I return early next week. Lobster rolls, here I come!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

More on Apple-Smoked Cherry Tomatoes

I'm a former chef. So I'm just a wee bit gaga over food. I pay attention to recipes, cookbooks, the garden, meals, restaurants and food-related websites. I reminisce about foods we enjoyed years ago in farflung corners of the globe. I love slow food that is rooted in the place and season it hails from. I know a good recipe when I steal one.

I hope, by giving this background, to communicate how impressive was my husband's wildly successful experiment with smoking some of our cherry tomatoes. I was floored, wowwed, bowled over by the end results. The cherry tomatoes, smoked with apple wood chips from our own tree, were still just slightly moist and pliable with a deeply smoky flavor. The natural sweetness of apple wood complemented the concentrated tomato sugars to produce a taste sensation that stunned my mouth. This was clearly something that demanded to be noticed. And notice I did, while giving all credit to my husband.

Yet, frugal soul that I am, I considered all that charcoal that went into producing these very few diminutive treasures, plus a significant amount of his time, and the cost/return analysis didn't look good. So, I set about experimenting. Could I shorten the amount of smoking time needed? I tried putting on a tray of cherry tomatoes after grilling our dinner. After letting them smoke for just over an hour, I put them in my dehydrator to continue drying down somewhat. The results, sampled very early yesterday morning (after my cat woke me with a hairball attack, but I digress), were pretty disappointing. The smoke flavor was too faint to deliver the profundity of the original long-smoked batch. Scratch the quick and easy method.

Having failed to shorten the batch processing time, yesterday I attempted to increase the batch size by stacking several trays up on our grill. If I can't get the product quicker, I'd at least like the most product for my efforts. There's a significant amount of work involved in producing these things. Here's how I spent the middle of yesterday.

Pick and wash a few pounds of cherry tomatoes. While they drain, arrange a few aluminum foil pans on your cold grill to figure out how they're going to fit. You want a significant gap around the edges so that smoke can filter up. If you have enough trays, figure out how you might stack them. Perforate the bottoms of the trays with a metal skewer to help the smoke circulate. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and arrange them cut side up on the trays, as many as will fit without undue crowding. Start the charcoal in the grill, and when it's ready separate it into two piles at opposite ends of the grill. Place the rack on the grill, with the somewhat open spaces where the handles are directly over the piles of hot charcoal. Arrange your filled trays on the grill rack and stack them as best you can, leaving gaps for air circulation. Throw some apple wood chips on the coals and cover the grill with the vents wide open. Check regularly, adding more charcoal and wood chips as needed through the gaps in the rack under the handles. Try not to spill the chips or charcoal on the tomatoes as you add them.

That, anyway, is the setup. My husband is the designated pyromaniac in our marriage and he's on another business trip. So it was just me trying to nurse along the smoldering embers and keep the grill full of apple smoke. I can get a bonfire roaring, but my fire skills are far too rusty for this delicate work. I checked the situation every fifteen minutes - yes, every 15 minutes - and finally called it a day after two and a half hours. This is definitely a high-maintenance way of dealing with the cherry tomato glut.

After just two and a half hours, the cherry tomatoes were still fairly plump and moist. So I consigned them to the dehydrator for an additional three hours, which freed me up to do other things. This gave them the semi-dried texture I wanted; not quite chewy, but packed with concentrated flavor. For dinner I added a handful of them to my quesadilla, along with some of our homemade, homegrown chile salsa. They shine especially brightly when paired with something a little rich, like cheese, cream, or eggs.

My husband thinks we ought to shop these around to local chefs, placing one of these babies on the tongue like a sacrament, and asking, "How much will you pay me for this?" I think he's crazy. First of all, there's no way I'm going to have any amount of these things that I'd be willing to part with. Second of all, if I did, there's no way I'd get paid anything close to what I think they're worth. Given that these little cherry tomatoes end up so much lighter than their original weight, and given the amount of time and effort it takes to get them there, I'd probably want a minimum of $75/pound. And who would ever pay that? But you, dear reader, could make your own. If you've got a grill and some cherry tomatoes, give it a try.

Further: I came up with a homemade smoker that runs on an electric burner rather than on charcoal.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Timely Reminder

For all of you who have been reading about gardening as a means of saving money, but who might not have much experience in gardening, I've got a hot tip for you. You can still plant something this year: Garlic! Just as with flower bulbs, fall is the time for garlic planting.

If you live in the northern hemisphere, now is a good time to get some garlic seed stock. There are plenty of seed vendors online which offer suggestions on the best varieties for your area, depending on climate. If the seed stock seems expensive, it is. But remember that with very little effort, this can be a once in a lifetime purchase. Simply save a portion of your crop from year to year as your seed stock. So this can still be a frugal purchase if you think long-term. Buy from a reputable vendor; you don't want to start out with diseased bulbs.

Garlic has been a remarkably trouble-free crop for me. I wish I'd started growing it sooner. It seems to appreciate a heavy mulch layer immediately after it's planted, as it can't compete with weeds very well. In the spring time some varieties will produce edible scapes, or seed head stalks. When still small, these curly, tender, green shoots are most welcome as one of the earliest of spring harvests. They're wonderful in pasta dishes and stir-fries. And they're a treat because they're very rarely available in markets. Garlic keeps very well, which means you can eat it for months after you harvest it, provided you don't gobble it all in a few weeks. Overall, garlic requires very little effort or space to grow and is a good candidate for beginner gardeners. Exactly when you should sow your garlic will depend on your climate zone and what general type of garlic you want to grow. But the sowing dates are coming up fast.

So if you haven't already lined up your garlic planting needs, get on it now!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Processed Foods

It's been another week spent in the garden and the kitchen. We've been food processors this week, taking our homegrown and even some purchased food and making it shelf-stable or just more convenient for us. Sometimes the effort is trivial, as with the several pounds of organic cheese that I shredded and froze for later use on our pizzas. More often, food processing takes more time and effort. Still, we feel the reward of high quality food in a convenient form more than trumps the "convenience" of low-quality, high-price store bought processed food.

The tomatoes, enjoying our recent hot and very dry weather, are ripening in earnest. The lack of humidity and rain means the tomato vines are being suitably tortured, so their fruits contain concentrated sweetness and bear few splits in their skin. I harvested 36 pounds of beefsteaks between Monday and Wednesday (and probably another 10 pounds, at least, last night). The sauce I processed them into has swelled the ranks of my filled canning jars residing in the basement. That dry heat I mentioned has also made the kitchen a little less of a hellhole while the canning is in progress. Typically, we have sweltering hot days this time of year, and the refrain goes, "it's not the heat; it's the humidity." So I'm thankful for small mercies.

The potato harvest continues. I'm experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance around this crop. I want to eat them. But I associate meals built around potatoes with cold weather. I'm working on overcoming this preconception. It's difficult going when there's still so much "summer" produce to deal with. Obviously, part of the way we deal with summer produce is by eating it. This has the effect of crowding out other meal possibilities. Still, I managed to cram in a very simple dish improvised around using up what we had. We had some schmaltz - that's rendered chicken fat. In this case, it was schmaltz processed from the skin of a bona fide free-range, organic chicken, raised by a friend of mine. We had the legs in a Thai-inspired chicken and pumpkin curry dish on Tuesday. So on Wednesday I thinly sliced two of the largest Kennebec potatoes I've dug out of the ground so far. I layered those into a skillet with the schmaltz, a smidgen of butter, slices of our own garlic, and a seasoned salt mix of ancho chile powder, cumin, white pepper and kosher salt. The skillet went into a hot oven, covered, for 25 minutes, then went another 25 minutes uncovered. You know what? It was delicious. I polished off nearly the entire thing the morning I made it.

In our first use of our chile pepper crop, my husband and I made and canned some salsa with a large pile of the peppers and a mix of our tomatoes. I found the recipe at the New Mexico State University Extension site. Now who better to trust for canned salsa recipes? The one I chose from the site contained equal parts chiles and tomatoes by volume, which helped with some of our supply issues. We've been eating lots of fresh salsa too. I even gave in and bought some tortilla chips at the store. It was pretty delicious.

The cherry tomato glut continues unabated. My husband came up with an ingenious but labor intensive way to process them. He smoked them with some of our own apple wood chips. He banked up a low fire in our Weber grill, arranged a lot of halved cherry tomatoes cut side up in low-sided aluminum trays, and then dropped small handfuls of our chips on the coals every half hour or so. It took hours. The pragmatist in me reaches for the conclusion that the end product isn't worth the lengthy process time, resources, and effort. But the gourmet in me has to acknowledge that these semi-dried, bite-sized nuggets are culinary gold. I don't know why someone isn't processing something like this on an industrial scale and marketing them for big bucks. I thought the Moonblush cherry tomatoes were like candy. Well, these apple wood smoked cherry tomatoes are like crack. We put them in some pasta along with a few homegrown poblano peppers that we smoked (thus turning them into genuine, if unusual, ancho peppers). We added cream and fresh herbs from our garden and some grated parmesan cheese. I really had to restrain myself from eating the entire dish. The leftovers didn't last long during the week, I can assure you.

I continue to harvest a few of my black soup beans every day and shell them whenever I accumulate a large enough pile to make it seem worthwhile when I look at the pile of shelled beans afterwards. The net can be a little disappointingly small compared to the gross. The soup beans are going to be one of the few crops I raise this year for which I'll have an exact harvest record. So far we've got about 3 cups of beans. The seed packet I bought had 51 beans in it. We'll see what the total is in a few more weeks. Next year I'll probably try to be more disciplined about recording harvest weights and such.

This weekend I plan to experiment with two different fillings for chiles rellenos. I'll probably process a big batch of whichever filling we prefer and then freeze them. Processed food indeed.

Related posts:

The Limits of Garlic

Friday, September 5, 2008

The $50 Monthly Grocery Challenge - How It Might Be Done

I've had a challenging budget goal for groceries every month since May of this year. Could we spend no more than $50 per month for our food? I've made regular reports on my attempts to meet this challenge. But I thought I'd sum up my findings and thoughts in this post.

Everyone's constraints and advantages will differ when approaching such a tight budget. Our constraints were that with few exceptions I buy organic, especially where meat and dairy products are concerned. I also try very hard to support local agriculture by shopping at the farmers' market. Could I get cheaper milk and fruit? Of course. But I personally wouldn't feel good about eating it. If our financial situation were truly dire, that preference would become a luxury we couldn't afford. But we're not there yet. Also, neither of us was prepared to subsist on ramen noodles. We weren't going to eat an unhealthy diet just for the sake of meeting this goal.

Our advantages were several. We have laying hens and a huge vegetable garden, a chest freezer with plenty of meat, fish, and homemade bread, and a well-stocked pantry with lots of shelf-stable cooking ingredients. Also, we only had to feed two adults. And I didn't have to include the meals my husband ate when he traveled for work, which was a significant part of the time.

I failed every month at meeting my own self-imposed grocery budget. But am I going to let that stop me from giving advice? Heck, no! Having made the attempt, here are my thoughts on how to go about feeding yourself if you need to cut back radically.

1. Stop eating out. This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway right off the bat. No lattes, no fast food, no deli sandwiches. Unless you have a coupon or gift certificate that makes food from a restaurant completely free, eating out is out of the question on this budget.

2. Shop your pantry/freezer/garden. The first and most obvious thing to do is to use up what you've already paid for. If you have food sitting around the house, now is the time to get creative and prepare meals using what is already available to you. This is how we were able to get even within striking distance of our budgetary goal.

3. Glean or forage. Never turn down free wholesome food. If someone offers you something edible - be it an overgrown zucchini from their garden or groundfall apples - accept it graciously and then use it. Learn what wild foods are available in your area and learn to appreciate them. Nuts, fruits, roots, wild greens - there's a whole world of edible food out there. Check Euell Gibbons' classic Stalking The Wild Asparagus out of the library. If you haven't already read it, it'll surprise you. If you see a fruit tree in your neighborhood with fallen fruits all over the ground, politely approach the owners and ask if you might collect the fruits. (Be aware of the risks with groundfall fruits however.)

4. Buy only cooking ingredients, never prepared foods. With very few exceptions, there's no way to meet such a strict budget while buying any sort of convenience food. So skip all prepared foods. Buy rolled oats instead of breakfast cereal and dried pasta instead of Chef Boyardee. Forego snack foods, alcohol, single-serving anything, and any purchased beverage other than milk. Stick to the produce aisle, the aisle with the canned and shelf-stable goods, and the frozen vegetable section.

5. Shop the loss leaders. Most chain grocery stores have a weekly advertisement about their sale items. Oftentimes these prices are so good that the store will not make any money on them, and will even take a loss. That's their decision. Your decision is to be one of the smart customers. Let another customer fulfill the store's expectation that the impulse buys and unnecessary purchases will cover their costs. Buy what they're promoting, and nothing else but what you really need to cook cheap but healthy meals.

6. Stop wasting food. On such a tight budget, there is no room whatsoever for letting food go to waste. Keep track of what is in your refrigerator and your fruit bowl. Pull any perishable items out to the front of the shelf where you will see them everyday. Make it a high priority to use stuff up before it goes bad. Also reconsider every scrap of food that you would otherwise throw away. Maybe you don't like to eat chicken skin. But did you know that the fat in it can be rendered down? It's called schmaltz, and it's used a lot in Jewish cooking. That's a few tablespoons of fat that can replace butter or cooking oil in another dish. Waste not, want not. So start thinking outside of the box when it comes to your food.

7. Produce your own food: garden, raise animals, fish, or hunt. This one is going to be a tough sell for those who don't already raise some of their own food. But there's really no way that I can see to come close to living on $50 worth of purchased food per month without directly producing some of my own food myself. Eggs and vegetables that are "free" to me have been the cornerstone of many, many meals for us during these months of the challenge. All of these options require lead time, effort, an investment in tools and/or licenses, and they're all easier to do once you've gotten some experience. (Who was it that said, "Experience is something you get after you need it.") You can't snap your fingers and have a productive garden or a starter flock of laying hens. If you don't have the tools or the permits needed to hunt or fish, you probably can't afford them if you need to live on $50 worth of food per month. But you can make long term plans to do these things. Or make friends with someone who already does. Gardeners often have extra food, and they nearly always have weeds to pull and work that should really get done if only they could find the time. (Trust me on this one.) Some hunters have extra meat that they'd be willing to barter for. Offer to trade a little labor for some food. You may also pick up some skills or tips to help you do it better yourself when you can. And by the way, chickens love kitchen scraps, which helps enormously with #6.

8. Eat less meat. Unless you're practicing one of the options mentioned in #7, other sources of protein are usually cheaper than meat. Eggs, dried beans, and tofu, and sometimes even dairy are all fine, protein-rich alternatives. I'm not saying you need to become a vegetarian. But unless you hunt, raise animals for meat, or have already stocked up on a lot of meat before you begin trying to live within this budget, meat is going to have to play a small role in your diet. Get past the idea that a proper lunch or dinner must include a large serving of meat. Instead, think of meat as a garnish or a flavoring ingredient. We often put a few slivers of parboiled bacon on our homemade pizza. The whole rice-and-beans idea sounds pretty dismal, I admit. But have you tried Cuban black beans lately? Or the combination of lentils and basmati rice with some sauteed onions and herbs? Give it a try. You may surprise yourself with how good these cheap alternatives can be.

9. Learn to cook. If you already know how, you're well situated for this budgetary challenge. If not, then learn the basics. This is not the time to try to master chicken Kiev or beef Wellington. Learn to cook pasta with fresh or frozen vegetables and a few pantry staples such as canned tomatoes and olive oil. Learn to make potato-garlic soup. Learn to bake bread - it's a lot easier than you may think. Turn to the library for solid cookbooks on the basics. I recommend Joy of Cooking, The New Best Recipe, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. All of these books will give you clear instructions on how to prepare simple, healthy foods.

10. Have a meal plan and a shopping list. Inventory your pantry and freezer, then sit down with a pen and paper to create a meal plan for the week. Build on what you already have. Then look at those store fliers and see what you can add without spending much money. List the meals you will prepare from those items and plan for leftovers wherever you can. Create a shopping list of what you need to buy and then stick to it like glue when you shop. Unless you see a spectacular unadvertised deal that you know you can incorporate into your meal plan, shop for only what is on your list. Don't go to the store hungry, or with hungry kids.

11. Skip the coupons. This is going to surprise many people. But when you're on a very tight grocery budget, coupons are rarely a good strategy. Few coupons are available for the most basic cooking ingredients. You may save a dollar on that frozen dinner, or that over-processed, over-packaged snack item. But you're probably better off spending the same after-coupon amount on potatoes, beans, or pasta. A large banana and a mug of tea brewed at home will be about as much as one serving of frozen orange juice. By sticking with basic ingredients you'll avoid the chemical additives and preservatives as well. Coupons will save you a little money if you insist on paying the premium for processed foods. But it's nearly always the better route - financially and health-wise - to buy basic ingredients and prepare the food at home. Now coupons for TP, those are worth using.

I'm not saying that doing all - or even any - of this is easy. Nor am I saying that this will guarantee that you can feed two adults on $50 of purchased food each month. After all, I failed every time I tried with this Challenge, even with all the advantages I had. Living on so small a grocery budget will require discipline and effort. If you plan carefully enough, know how to cook, and have some sources of "free" food (either from storage, gleaning, or your own production), this should be doable.

Finally, a serious note. I've written all of the above from the perspective of someone choosing this strict budget as a voluntary challenge. If you're reading this because your immediate financial situation is so dire that this is not an option but a necessity, then seek help from a foodbank, a church, or any charity that will help you put food on the table. This is not a time to stand on pride. My understanding is that it takes months to be approved for the foodstamp program, so you may not be able to rely on it in the short term, but get the process started as soon as possible. By the time you're approved, you may not need it and you can graciously decline the aid. But better to give your future self that option than ignore a valuable resource that may make all the difference. If you are looking ahead to serious longterm financial constraints, then you should seriously consider every possibility of growing or raising your own food.

Related Posts:
May Challenge report
June Challenge report
July-August Challenge report
Four Cornerstone Meals for Frugal Living

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Garden Bonus: Ground Cherries

Gardening is a learning experience, that's for sure. You begin to garden in a new location, even if it's only a new location on your own property, and you're on a learning curve. I've gardened for two years in our new home, and I've had the opportunity to make plenty of mistakes and to learn a few things too.

One of the most pleasant things I've learned is that we have volunteer ground cherries in our garden. I'd heard of ground cherries and have even had them served to me once or twice in fancy restaurants. But I'd never seen the plant, and without their distinctive fruits I only recognized the small ones in our garden as weeds. So I ripped out quite a few of them. Fortunately for the ground cherries, our pumpkin patch became an impenetrable jungle for about two months. The ground cherries took their chances in there. Once the pumpkin vines died back, the ground cherries took over.

What are ground cherries, you ask? They're a plant native to North America, and as their looks indicate, they're related to the tomatillo. They produce small yellow-orange fruits inside a loose, papery, lantern-shaped husk. To me their buttery taste is reminiscent of a fig, but my husband thinks they taste sort of like a melon. Sometimes we both get hints of vanilla. Isn't it useless to try to describe the taste of a fruit to someone who's never had one? Anyway, we like them. The ripe fruits have a fair amount of sweetness, and little acidity. They seem best when the lantern husks turn from green to pale yellow and drop to the ground on their own. Their growing habit is trailing and spreading. So perhaps they might appreciate some staking.

We've got a few hardy survivor specimens of ground cherry out there. There won't be enough to do anything with them except nibble on them as they ripen. If we had more of these, I might consider drying them. Apparently they're good candidates for that treatment. I've studied the plant's appearance carefully. Next year I won't be ripping out any volunteers if I can accommodate them.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

So Now You've Got a Chest Freezer

Two days ago we discussed how to evaluate the cost of a potential chest freezer purchase. Yesterday we talked about how you might or might not make that purchase a frugal one. Today we're going to assume you've run right out and bought yourself a new chest freezer. So now what? Well, as a frugal person, you naturally want to get the most out of this expensive appliance. Here's how to do it.

Maximizing efficiency

Reducing the costs to run the freezer.
There are a few things you can do to slightly lower your electricity costs to run your freezer. Regular maintenance tasks such as defrosting and cleaning the coils are the chores that no one wants to do, but which really do make a difference in efficiency. Most chest freezers are not frostless. This means the food inside will keep longer because the unit does not cycle, but instead maintains a steady temperature. But it also means you'll need to unload the freezer and defrost it about once every year or two. Doing so allows the unit to cool more efficiently and lowers your electricity costs.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions on where to situate your chest freezer. My model needs there to be good airflow around it, and there are guidelines for the range of temperatures the room should be at for many models. The company that made your freezer probably did fairly extensive research on the optimal conditions for operating your new investment. So take advantage of their findings.

The other thing that helps a little is to keep the freezer full. You don't have to use this as an excuse to load it up with "bargain" foods that aren't really bargains. Ice will fill space in your chest freezer just as well as anything else. You could stockpile ice cubes for your next party, or fill old milk jugs or soda bottles and freeze those solid. You can easily add or remove sealed jugs or bottles as needed to fill up or make room in your freezer. Just remember to leave a little headspace inside the bottle for the water to expand when frozen. Bottom line is: if you have trouble keeping your freezer full of stuff that's truly useful to you, you probably bought a model that's bigger than you needed in the first place.

Organizing your Chest Freezer.

You can't benefit from, or eat, what you can't find. As an owner of a chest freezer, I can attest that organization becomes a very real issue as the freezer gets full. The new chest freezer owner invariably succumbs to the allure of all that empty space waiting be filled, and commences stocking up with abandon. Unless you get a model with some serious built-in compartments, keeping a chest freezer organized is more of a challenge than it might seem.

I tried the milk crate system and rejected it. For one thing it left too much difficult to use space outside of the crates. And for another, the cold temperatures left the crates more vulnerable to cracking. We tried keeping a written inventory of stuff going into and coming out of the chest freezer. This might work for some families or individuals, but we're just not that meticulous.

Eventually I hit on the idea of using the heavy woven plastic bags that are sold as reusable shopping bags. It's easy to fill these by theme: pork, lamb, garden vegetables, fruit, fish, dairy, etc. Generally, the tops of the bags stay somewhat open when mostly full of stuff, making it easy to see some of the contents. That way I know generally where to find things, and the handles provide a good way of pulling things out of the freezer without throwing out my back. I can grab the handles and pull out one bag at a time without having to bend and lift. Then I rummage through the bag with the freezer closed, and return that bag to the freezer when I've found what I wanted. I use easily identifiable, miscellaneous stuff to fill the gaps around these shopping bags. I have found that the regular thin plastic shopping bags aren't very good in a chest freezer; at such a cold temperature they tear quite easily on several kinds of packaging.

How you go about filling your chest freezer will depend on both your tastes and your personality. But eventually it comes down to balancing the desire to use space efficiently with practicality. In my experience, the most important habit to get into with a chest freezer is to label everything you put in there. I mean everything. You will probably do as I did and tell yourself a few times that you'll recognize this extra pie crust/turkey giblets/baking experiment when you next see it. Trust me: you want to label that stuff. Anything that doesn't already have a clear explanation - write the name and date on it. If you buy labeled fresh meat with the intention of sticking it in the freezer, you may want to put the date you froze it on the label anyway, especially if you sometimes buy meats close to their "sell by" dates. That information gives you some sense of how quickly you need to use up the meat once it's thawed. Because if you're looking at a roast that's been in your freezer for a while and is now three months past its sell by date, how long is it safe to keep it in the fridge before you cook it? Label everything. In the end it'll save you mystification, frustration, and money.

Portioning what you freeze

Thoughtful portioning is especially important with a chest freezer because a chest freezer usually runs at a lower temperature than the freezer attached to your refrigerator. So it's going to take longer to thaw a given item from the chest freezer.

I want to store foods in ways that make them easy for me to use quickly once I decide to take them out of the freezer. So I use a variety of storage methods. Soups and stews can go into plastic quart-sized yogurt containers. This leaves some difficult to use space around the containers, but it's a good portion size for a family of two. I typically make soups I intend to freeze a little on the thick side, then thin them after thawing. That way I can get 5-6 servings per quart.

I use the ice cube tray trick for things like citrus juice, pizza sauce, beaten eggs, and sometimes for pesto. Again, this is not the most efficient use of space in the freezer. But it allows me to thaw just as much of these items as I need very quickly. I've learned to portion meats the along similar principles. When I buy large quantities of bacon, I lay out a long sheet of plastic wrap, and then lay out the bacon in groups of two, three, or four slices, with a fold of the plastic sheet sandwiched in between each group. That allows me to reach in and remove only as much bacon as I want, without having to thaw the entire package at once.

Last year, the couple at Future House Farm showed off their beautiful array of produce stored in the freezer using the clever file method for ziploc bags. This consists of putting a liquid or semi-liquid food into ziploc bags, squeezing out all the air pockets, and then freezing the bags solid in a very flat shape. Once frozen, the bags can be stood up on edge and packed together like file folders. This works best when you either plan to thaw the entire contents at once (soup), or when the food will be frozen in a thin enough layer that you can just break off the amount you need whenever you need it (tomato paste).

Meal Planning & Freezer Inventory

Having a chest freezer full of food is a good feeling. But remember that you actively need to use this stuff up rather than just let it sit there as a hoard. It's a good idea to inventory what you've got at least a few times per year. If you have a lot of one particular item or items, make a note of the quantity on hand. Then keep that note in the kitchen to remind yourself to find a way to incorporate that item into your cooking at least once per week. If you've gone to the trouble of preparing ready to eat meals, keep a list of those as well. You're more likely to turn to them on the spur of the moment on a night you don't feel like cooking if you can simply look at your list and decide what to thaw. Isn't that better than just calling for pizza delivery?

Try to get into the habit of thinking about the evening meal early in the day, perhaps before you leave for work, or even the night before you cook. If you need to thaw something large from your chest freezer for use in the next 24 hours, place it in the topmost part of your refrigerator as early as possible. If your habits and lifestyle aren't going to include this much anticipation, then consider devoting one weekend per month to preparing meals that can go straight into the oven from the chest freezer. Search the web or your library for books on once a month cooking. You can find thin aluminum trays similar to pie plates in a range of sizes and shapes at most supermarkets. These are great for preparing small versions of casseroles and other dishes. And if you're careful with them, they can be washed and reused many times before they wear out.

-Whew! That's three days of talking about chest freezers. You know, when I started crafting these posts about chest freezers, I never imagined there'd be so much to say about them. I sincerely hope I've covered enough of the issues to put the chest freezer theme to bed. Onwards.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How to Save, or Not, with a Chest Freezer

Yesterday I talked about how to come up with an exact figure for the monthly cost of owning and running a chest freezer. Today I want to discuss how to evaluate that number in terms of what it would mean in your life.

Ways of Saving Money with a Chest Freezer

In order for a chest freezer to become a tool to use in pursuit of frugality, it must allow you to actively save more money each month than it costs to keep the freezer running. How you might go about this depends very much on your lifestyle, and what lifestyle changes you would make if and when you get a chest freezer. Let's look at some of them.

Eat at home instead of eating out. This is the big and obvious one. For those of you with a full family life of kids, two careers, and an overloaded schedule, the temptation to just get the family fed with fast food can be overwhelming some nights. Paradoxically, you may be one of the best candidates for buying a chest freezer. The catch is that you do actually need to change your habits at least a little. If, by owning a chest freezer, you substitute a few meals at home each month for eating out, you're going to come out ahead. Even if you simply microwave a frozen dinner rather than eating in a sit-down restaurant, you're better off. Of course, frozen dinners for a single meal would probably fit in the freezer attached to your refrigerator. If you switch from occasional restaurant dining, delivery, or carry-out to storing and eating your own homemade freezer-to-oven ready meals, you'll come out farther ahead. And if you entirely break a regular habit of paying for meals out, you'll easily save hundreds of dollars per month.

Also paradoxically, if you already prepare all your meals from scratch without a chest freezer, you need to ask yourself if getting one is really going to let you save more than the cost of owning and running an extra freezer each month. If you're already following frugal ways, what's the advantage to you of making an expensive purchase like this one? Well, you could be a candidate though for...

Gardening extensively. It can't be denied that having storage space in the freezer allows the home gardener to put away an impressive quantity of very high-quality produce over the growing season. If you already garden, then you could use a chest freezer to leverage the effort of working a larger garden space. If you don't currently garden, you could begin doing so. But again, honesty is required here. Gardening is a fun hobby for some, utter drudgery to others, and a serious commitment of time and effort for anyone who does it. So is food preservation. You can't just pick a fresh vegetable and chuck it in the freezer. Some other work is going to be involved. Are you really up to (more) gardening? Could you tackle it as a family project if your kids are of age to help? Consider it carefully before using it to justify a major purchase. If you do pursue this, you also need to think about which plants suitable for your climate and growing conditions will be preserved in the freezer.

Raising animals for meat. This is probably beyond the interests of many people, but it's something to consider if you're serious about moving towards food independence. If you plan to keep rabbits, chickens or other animals for meat, a chest freezer is probably a very good idea. Even having laying hens will let you store some eggs in the freezer for the times of year they don't produce.

Reducing waste. Having plenty of extra freezer space is a great opportunity to prevent spoilage of food you've already paid for or grown. There are times when stuff sits around too long in the fridge. In many cases, there's a way to get it into the freezer for later use. Citrus fruits can be juiced and the zest peeled. Both of these can go into the freezer. Cheese can be grated and later used for pizza or casseroles. Vegetable trimmings can be stored up and saved for making stock. Leftovers can be shifted later in time just by freezing and thawing. Fruits can be peeled, cut up and frozen for later use in desserts or smoothies. Keeping spices and flours in the freezer also preserves them much longer than they would at room temperature. So you may get more use out of your investment in some costly ingredients.

Shopping the sales and buying in bulk. There's no denying that freezer capacity can change the way you shop. Some grocery stores sell their must-go meat in large quantities. If you have a chest freezer, you can take advantage of this. You could also consider buying half of a steer, hog, or lamb directly from a local farmer. Or, when your price comparison book tells you that you've found a great deal on anything you use on a regular basis, you can stock up like crazy. We've got about twelve pounds of organic butter and ten packs of Hebrew National hot dogs in our freezer right now, due to fantastic deals that we spotted several months ago. It's great to know you have the storage space to take advantage of such opportunities. The Frugal Girl has a nice piece on how to freeze large quantities of chicken when it goes on sale, so that it's easy to use later on.

Stocking up on other things. I also use our freezer to store up homemade bread and other baked goods. I can bake ten loaves of bread in one day and freeze them for later consumption. This allows me to save a little bit of money on fuel costs by running my oven less often, and by not heating up my house during the hot summer months. This results in a fairly small amount savings compared to not having the freezer at all. I would probably still bake my own bread without the chest freezer. But the savings, small and difficult to calculate though they be, are there nonetheless.

Driving Less = Lower Fuel Costs. Having a chest freezer and using it to stock up can mean fewer trips to the store, which can save you money on gasoline. This can be accomplished either by buying in bulk, or by using the freezer to store food you grow yourself. But again, you need to look at the particulars of your life. If you drive by the grocery store on the way to work everyday anyway, you probably won't drive less as a result of having a chest freezer.

Drawbacks, Concerns, and Risks

Increased work load. As with many ways of saving money, chest freezer frugality takes more effort as compared to the "convenience" of paying to have your food prepared for you. In order to save, you must do the food processing.

The fallacy of "saving." Remember that you aren't saving anything when you put food into the freezer. Whether you got a fantastic deal on a roast, or raised your own vegetables, you don't save any money by putting these things in a freezer. You only save when you pull that food out of the freezer and eat it in lieu of something else you might have eaten that would have cost you more money. If you buy and stock a chest freezer with the good intentions of eating at home, but then ignore that food and continue to eat out or bring prepared food into your home, you're just wasting money. Eventually, the food in the freezer will become a total loss. Don't fool yourself into stocking up more food than your family can eat before it gets freezer burned. The best sale prices don't mean much if you only prepare a few meals at home each month.

Extended power outage can lead to a big loss. The whole premise of using a chest freezer to save money rests on a steady supply of electricity. Losing power during a cold winter might not matter much if your chest freezer is located in an unheated space. As a rule of thumb, food in a chest freezer that loses power will be okay for up to 48 hours if the freezer remains closed. But if you experience frequent power outages during warm weather, consider this risk carefully. You could lose hundreds of dollars worth of food in one go.

Making the Decision

So, is a chest freezer for you? Think about the monthly figure you came up with based on yesterday's calculations. For us, that number is around $5.80. Let's look at it by crunching the numbers. We're a family of just two, which means we eat 180 meals per month (2 people x 3 meals per day x 30 days). On average, that means the chest freezer must be directly responsible for a savings of just over 3 cents per serving for every single meal we eat ($5.80/180 meals). Or we could say that we need to use it to save $1.45 per week in food costs ($5.80/4 weeks per month). This is just a break even point. To come out ahead, we need to do better than that.

How many meals do you prepare each month? And how many people do you feed in your family? The more home cooked food you serve each month, the better your potential savings. And by contrast, every meal you eat out or buy prepared food lowers the savings contribution of your chest freezer. Assess yourself and your lifestyle honestly. If two working adults eat out for lunch every weekday, that's 40 meals per month that aren't going to be affected by having a chest freezer. You can't use a freezer as a frugal tool if you don't eat at home.

Thinking about all the possible ways of saving money mentioned above. How many are going to apply to you? Does this look like a smart purchase to you? Can you realistically expect to save more than the monthly cost of ownership? If you are comfortable with the increased work load needed to save a lot more than that monthly figure, you're a good candidate. If you just don't cook that many meals at home, and you don't see that changing anytime soon, this purchase probably doesn't make much sense. The same is true if you already eat quite frugally without the benefit of a chest freezer.

Tomorrow I'll give some other tips for those of you who already own or are ready to buy a chest freezer.