Monday, January 30, 2012

Fire in the Sky

Ok, it wasn't really fire.  But it was a beautiful, bright sunset Saturday evening when DH and I were out working on our north fenceline, cutting down dead trees and trimming some of the wild apple trees that grow there. 

I couldn't help but to take a picture with my cell phone.  Wish it would have captured the brilliance of the colors, but I think you'll get the idea.

Off to the left, you can barely make out the barn and house.  To the right, you see the trees/brush we were working in, and our tractor which transported us, the chainsaw, and our other pruning tools.  It had been a windy afternoon with intermittent snow storms.  A great day for working outside in the winter.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Frugal Food #12: The Cellar

If few houses have pantries anymore, even fewer have a cellar.  Which is a shame, because a cellar is a very useful thing.  Being underground, it is an excellent cold-storage area that won't freeze.  A perfect place for storing root crops such as potatoes and carrots.  A great spot for keeping apples from fall harvest well into the winter.  And, in a winter power outage, an excellent substitute for a refrigerator.

A great frugal tool, when it comes to feeding your family.  Let me give you two examples of how having a cellar saves me money.

1.  In October 2010, DH, the kids and I went to an orchard and picked 4 bushels of apples.  Now, 4 bushels is a lot of apples!  I made one bushel into applesauce, which I canned.  Another 1/4 bushel or so got made into apple chips, also known as dehydrated apples.  The rest got stored for fresh eating and holiday pies.  Those apples, from the orchard, came out to 48 cents a pound.  We didn't get no cheapy varieties, either.  We got tasty, useful ones, like Cortland, Empire and Granny Smith.  Especially Granny Smith, those are DH's favorite apples.  They cost $1.69 a pound at the grocery store, and those are ones that have been sprayed, buffed, waxed to pretty perfection, shipped from Washington state, and accumulate bruises along the way.  The Granny Smiths in my cellar, the 48 cent a pound ones, were handpicked by my family, taken carefully right from the tree, brought home with a minimal amount of bruising, no spraying, no buffing, and no waxing.  By the way, a bushel of apples weighs approximately 48 pounds.  So, for my two bushels of Granny Smiths, I paid about $42.  To get the same two bushels from the grocery store, at $1.69 a pound would have cost me $160.  What do you think?  Was it worth it to have a cellar that those apples stayed good in until we'd eaten them all up by March?

2.  In 2007, I had the opportunity to buy potatoes for $8 a bushel.  A bushel of potatoes weighs 50 pounds.  That comes out to a price of 16 cents a pound.  At that time, a 10-pound bag of potatoes in the store was $2.99 on sale, and I can't remember what the non-sale price was (because I only bought on sale, lol).  That means, at $2.99 per 10 pounds, I would have paid $14.95 to get 50 pounds of potatoes (5 10-pound bags).  Savings: $6.95 per 50 pounds.  I got 150 pounds, or 3 bushel.  My family of five ate potatoes for about four months, and not one potato got rotten, because potatoes love being stored in a cool cellar versus a warm kitchen cupboard.

Have I pleaded the frugality of a cellar enough?  Do you want one of your own?  There are several ways you can make one.  Do an internet search for 'cellar' or 'cellar plans' and you'll have hours worth of reading at your disposal.

Let me tell you about how my cellar came to be. 

When we were building this little place here, plans called for a covered porch that was the length of the front of the house.  Building code required that this porch have footers poured at four feet below ground level.  In other words, we would have to excavate the length of the house, the width of the porch (7 feet, if I remember right), and a depth of four feet, in order to be allowed to build this porch.

DH, who had purchased a used backhoe to excavate the basement of the house (rather than hire a professional excavator to do the digging for us at a cost greater than the old backhoe), got the idea that if we had to dig down four feet, why not go a full eight, which was the depth of the basement anyway, and have a cold cellar under our front porch. 

I of course thought this was a most excellent idea.  Quite a bit of the width of the proposed cellar was all ready at eight feet deep because of the hole excavated for the basement being larger than the actual basement footprint, so that there was room to work down there and also to lay drain tile around the foundation of the house.  We had the backhoe, we had to dig anyway, so why fill in 4' of most of the hole while digging it just a few feet wider?  Why not take those few extra feet all the way down to what was all ready the bottom of the hole?  What was a little more time and fuel (in reality, not much more at all) to double the depth and gain cold storage?  So that is what we did.

Once we had the hole dug, and the footings poured, we needed to form the walls for the cellar.  One long wall was all ready done, as it was the basement wall.  That was built with insulated concrete forms (aka ICFs,) which were fairly new technology at the time and were pretty much hollow white Styrofoam Lego blocks that you stacked together, interlocking them, and poured cement into to form a wall that didn't need any additional insulation.

the "Lego" House
(door opening in long wall is where the cellar door will be)

 For the other long wall, and the two short ones, we used cinder blocks and mortar.  Now we had a long rectangle, with a door located in the basement wall at the end of the basement stairs. 

cellar walls completed
(note, any part of the cinderblock walls that would be below final grade were covered on the outside with a waterproof backing as seen in corner of cellar)

After that, we framed the roof of the cellar, making rafters of 2" x 6"s,

looking down into the cellar from outside ( standing at what will be approximately finished grade)

looking up from inside of cellar

 Over the rafters, we put corrugated steel sheeting to keep out of the cellar any rain water that would drip down between the floorboards of the front porch.  It is on a steep enough angle (thanks to the rafters) that any water runs right off and into what would later be flowerbeds.

The raised ends of the steel got sealed with spray foam insulation to keep critters and outside air from entering the cellar.  On the underside of the steel sheeting, inside the cellar, DH put 1" thick foam insulation board. 


Where the top of the short walls and the steel sheeting didn't meet, DH blocked in with lumber.  On the south end, he drilled out two 4" holes and inserted PVC pipe into them.  They are my vents for the cellar: they have grilled covers on the outside (with old pantyhose stretched over the pipe, under the cover, to act as a screen for bugs), one pipe has an elbow and a extension running nearly to the floor--the cold air inlet, and the other enters and sticks straight out a few feet into the cellar--the warm air 'exhaust'.  Both PVC pipes, on the inside of the cellar, have removable caps.  In the fall, when the nights get cool and I want to reduce the temperature of my cellar faster, I can take off the caps of both pipes.  The warm air at the top of the cellar flows out, while cooler night air flows in, being deposited near the cellar floor.  During the day (and anytime I want the temp to be steady) I put the caps back on.

warm air outlet pipe on left, cold air return on right

The floor of the cellar we left dirt.  Clay, actually, as that is the native soil at this little place here.  Over that we spread pea gravel, which in reality was mostly in that area anyway, having been the cover for over the drain tile that ran the perimeter of our house.  Having a dirt floor saves money (versus pouring cement), and also lets natural humidity into the cellar.  The floor retains a moistness, but has never gotten muddy or squishy.

The pressure tank for the well is also located in the cellar. 

DH built a set of shelving using some reclaimed lumber. (More of that deck I told you about in the Free Lumber post--the first old deck we were given).  I keep mostly canned good on the shelves, as you can see.

I have acquired, through the years, a number of wooden 1/2 bushel baskets.  These are where I store my potatoes, and also apples when we pick a quantity of them for storage.

I also keep a thermometer in my cellar.  The warmest it has ever been is 62 degrees during a prolonged hot spell in the summer, and the only time it got close enough to the freezing point that I left the light on in there to add some heat was during the January several years ago when we spent all month with a outdoor high temperature that never got above 30 degrees. Average summer temp in the cellar is 55 degrees, and most of the winter it is a nice 40-42 degrees, making it a perfect substitute refrigerator.  In the spring, when it's just starting to get warmer down there, it's a great place to cold ferment a batch of lager for two months.  (Any homebrewers reading this blog?  We've been brewing since 2000. . .)

I love my cellar.  It's like my own personal grocery store, only I don't need to take any money with me when I go shopping in it!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sugar Monkey Fuel

How's your sugar monkey doing?  (Anybody who is confused at this question, see my post "My Monkey".)  Have you been trying to get him under control?  Or is he still jumping around on your back, yanking you to and fro?

It's not easy taming that darn monkey.  Just when I think I'm doing good, and keeping mine polite and respectful, he tends to bust loose again.  Then I'm craving sweets, and wondering how in the heck that little monkey turned into a big ape pushing me around.

I'm not drinking pop (soda for you easterners, coke for you south-westerners, cola for you who don't say pop, soda or coke in reference to your carbonated soft drinks).  I'm not eating candy.  I haven't baked cookies since Christmas time.  So why do I suddenly have the overwhelming urge to stuff my face with carbs and sweet stuff?

Aha!  The answer is in the pantry.  It snuck in with the latest grocery run.  The one I let one of my daughters talk me into buying some processed food that we don't normally eat.  There it is, right on the panel of the package, hiding in amongst the dozens of ingredients:  high fructose corn syrup.

My nemesis.  Usually it gives me a headache, tipping me off that whatever I just ate contained my chemical enemy.  But this time it must have been a low enough dose, far enough down on the ingredient list on the label, that I didn't get the (almost literal) clanging sirens in my head.  Instead, I just got a big case of the munchies.

For me, keeping the sugar monkey under control is all about watching what I put in my mouth.  Just because 'real sugar' isn't an ingredient in something doesn't mean I won't get the same effect (cravings, blood sugar undulations, mood swings) by eating a 'fake sugar' such as sucralose, or aspartame, and especially high fructose corn syrup.  In fact, those fake sugars seem to actually have a stronger effect on me.  A few bites, and suddenly I'm an addict who'll do just about anything in order to get my next fix and keep the high going.

So, beware, those who are trying to get rid of sugar monkeys.  Artificial sweetener is not a substitute, it is the same as regular sugar when it comes to affecting your appetite and mood.  There are some studies, and many personal testimonies, that show these fake sugars may actually create a bigger desire for sweets and carbs than good ol' fashioned beet and cane sugar.  For some of us (me!  jumping up and down, waving my arms in the air), artificial sweeteners don't just act like regular sugar in fueling our monkeys, they also give us other ailments like migraines.

What gets the sugar monkey under control is strict adherence to dietary habits--only natural sweets like fruits--and reading those labels for sweeteners where you don't expect to find them.  Like in a box of crackers.  Or a loaf of bread.  Or those croutons you're putting on the salad that is your attempt at eating healthier.  They're out there, and they can make your sugar monkey turn into Donkey Kong.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A January Walk

It appears that the real January has finally arrived at this little place here--snow this morning with air temps in the teens and wind chills touching zero; now that's more like it for January in Michigan! 

Many people are grumbling about the weather being cold today, but I find it actually comforting to get a familiar January day instead of all the warm, soggy, fall-like weather we've had so far this winter.  Really, depsite having to bundle up into my Carhartt bibs and coat, my Mad Bomber fur-lined hat, my hand-me-up Sorel boots (hand-me-up because I inherited them when my daughters outgrew them, lol) and my thick insulated work gloves, I'm liking this cold snap.  Despite having to keep the chickens contained in their coop for warmth, despite having to bust ice out of the dog and cats' dishes, despite the slick drifted roads, I'm happy.

In honor of normal winter weather finally showing up, I present a poem I wrote several years ago.  It was inspired by the things I saw while doing farm chores on a frigid January day.

A January Walk

When the January sky is pale blue,
And the sun shines bright white,
The world is made of frosted glass.

My breath turns to snowflakes,
My skin tingles and I know I am alive.
As I walk, the snow squeaks softly
Beneath my feet.

There is movement in the evergreens;
Sparrows and chickadees peer
From where they nestle within.

Rabbit tracks dance upon powdery snow;
Raised lines betray the tunnels
Where mice travel below.

The snow shows the impression of wingtips;
Earlier a hawk swooped silently
To catch his meal.

Hoary-haired deer glide quietly
Through white-shrouded woods.
And fields sleep gently
In a crystalline glitter.

All is calm and peaceful.
My soul is still.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bending Noses and Curling Toes: My View on Raising Children

I've had this kicking around as a rough draft on my computer for a couple of months now.  Debating whether or not to post it.  I'm sure it will offend more than one person out in internet land.  But you know, sometimes in life we get offended, and learning to deal with it is good for us.  And, since this week I've gotten the question again about what I did with my kids to make them so awesome (DD1 just was awarded a scholarship locally, and was in the newspaper, along with the essay she wrote for said scholarship competition.), I thought maybe I actually should go ahead and put it out there for the world to see.  I'm not bragging, not trying to make myself look great, not trying to put anyone else down.  I'm just trying to honestly and thoughtfully answer a question I've gotten many times from many people in the past 15+ years. 

So, here goes.

Through the years, I've had more than a handful of people ask me what I did with my kids that made them so great, smart, etc.  Always, I said "nothing", because I truly believed I hadn't done anything differently than any other parent. 

Then, one day, I realized I was mistaken.  Apparently I had done things differently than many other parents.  Because what I heard from parents who were lamenting over their kids' lack of academic ability, or social skills, or sense of personal responsibility didn't jive with how I'd interacted with my kids.  And that's what makes me feel at least minutely qualified to give parenting advice.  My kids have all turned out pretty well (so far.  They currently range in age from 22-14).  There have been more commendations and honors than embarrassments and criticisms.  The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes.

So, without further ado, and in no particularly meaningful order, here's my twenty-two plus years of parenting wisdom compiled into an easy to read list:

Kids need
--fats.  Their little developing brains need and use fats--naturally occurring ones.  Don't feed them a low-fat diet; instead give them whole milk, cheese, yogurt, real butter, etc.  Skip the fried foods and greasy burgers, just give them fats that naturally occur.

--structure.  Mealtime, bedtime, playtime, chore time, homework time, family time.  Life is not a free-for-all, it has a rhythm.

--nutrition.  See fats.  Feed them real foods, which don't usually come ready-to-eat in a paper or foil wrapper or a crinkly bag.  Better nutrition = better health = better attendance at and performance in school and life.  Good nutrition is a recipe for success.

--limits.  They need adults to be the boss.  The guides, the leaders.  They are not capable yet of making good decisions on the important things in their lives.  Let them pick out what color shirt they wear, not what time they go to bed, what they will or will not eat (at my house it was eat what was served or go hungry til the next meal, and none of my kids was ever malnourished or severely underweight).  They do not get to choose whether or not they will do their chores or schoolwork.  There are things in life that you must do whether you want to or not, and chores and schoolwork fall into that category.  It's better to learn that now rather than later.

--to be interacted with.  By you, the parent.  Not the TV, not the video game, and not just their friends.  Parents are the most important influence on a child's development.  I'll say it again, it's so important:  Parents are the most important influence on a child's development.

--a stable home.  Mainly this means that the adults in the home are the same people as much of the time as is humanly possible. It also means that they are home with their kids nights and weekends, not out running with friends while the kids stay with a sitter.  My DH traveled quite often for his job when our four kids were growing up.  In response to this, he and I felt it was doubly important for me to be a stay-at-home mom as much as possible.  If I had to work for financial reasons, I tried to find a job that was only during school hours so that I was home when my kids were home.  I'm not trying to dis on single parents.  Heaven knows you have it tough when you're trying to bring in all the income and be the only parent in a child's life.  But this spring, when DS2 graduated, it was really driven home to me how important a stable home is: of the three co-valedictorians and the salutatorian in his graduating class, all four of them came from two-parent homes.  Single parents who are not single by choice, I'm sorry.  Do the very best you can.

--to explore.  Let them get dirty (and then take a bath), make a mess (then clean it up), experiment with cause and effect.  A few germs won't kill them, they probably won't burn your house down, or blow anything up (at least, not until they are teenagers, LOL.  And then it won't be a malicious destruction, but a curiosity- and creativity-driven science experiment gone wrong :0)  )

--discipline.  See limits.  They need to know that the things they do have consequences.  Let them see both the good and the bad consequences of their actions.

--a higher power.  See limits and discipline.  It's also my belief that they need the higher power of religion, but I'll leave that up to you and your priorities for your children.  Basically, they have to know the world has rules, and they aren't the ones who made the rules.  Everyone has to answer to someone.  I answer, ultimately, to God.  That keeps me pretty straight, most of the time.

--exposure to all ages.  Life is not segregated by age.  In the adult world, all the 20-somethings don't work in one office, the 30-somethings in another, the 40-somethings in a third, the 50-somethings at yet a different place, and anyone over 65 vanishes off the face of the earth.  Nope, life is about interacting with and being exposed to all parts of life from birth to the very elderly and including death.

--to read.  Read to your child, right from birth.  The child who is shown that reading is fun, that books are interesting, that adults enjoy reading too, is the child who will be a good reader.  And a person who can read has no limits on what they can learn.  With the right book or how-to-website, you can teach yourself pretty much anything even if you don't have an expert around to show you in person.

--physical activity, preferably outdoors.  Not to say physical activity can't take place between four walls, a roof, and a floor.  But outside adds such a richness to it.  There is so much to see and experience outdoors that broadens one's mind.

--manners.  Survival necessity.  Manners make the world go round.  Respect for others is included and is a key part of having manners.

--LOVE.  Yes, in capital letters.  Kids need love.  We all need love, but kids, especially, need to know that they are loved.  That's what makes them feel important, knowing that their parents love them and want them around.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Shopping For A Garden

We are having our first real snowstorm of the season.  About two inches on the ground currently, with more coming down.  It's about dang time!!  I don't ever remember making it almost halfway through January without having a decent snowfall before.

This afternoon, while I watch the snow fall outside (after I spent several hours outside in it this morning doing chores), I'm shopping for my garden.  My favorite seed catalog provides the impetus. 

It has so many luscious full color pictures and descriptions that it's difficult not to order so many seeds I'd need to expand my garden by acres!  Plus, this is a very reputable business that I've ordered from in the past.  Their service is excellent, and so are their seeds. 

Back to the task at hand: figuring out just how much I need to order.  Not how much I want to order, but how much I need to.  I know what we eat.  I know how much space I have in the garden. Now I just have to blend the two together.  And resist the urge to try to squeeze in any new things just because they look neat or yummy.

If you're new to garden planning and seed ordering (I do recommend ordering from a reputable company versus just plucking seed packages off the shelf at the local department store), here are some tips.

1. Define your goal for your garden.  Is this for fresh eating during the summer?  Do you want to grow enough to can or freeze what you produce?  Do you want to go with a certain theme, like a salad garden, or a salsa garden, or a children's garden?

2. Once you have a goal, figure out what plants fit in that goal.  For example, if you're doing a salad garden, you probably don't really need pumpkins.  Or rutabaga.  You need a variety of lettuces, maybe some spinach or chard, as well as slicing cukes and cherry tomatoes or maybe slicing tomatoes, and don't forget the carrots and radishes!  Likewise, if your goal is to grow all the ingredients you need to can up a bunch of homemade salsa, you probably don't want to grow spinach or radishes or watermelons.

3. From there, decide how much of each veggie you want to eat, and for how long.  Just this summer?  Or are you shooting for enough green beans to last you until next year?  If you are making the leap into growing and preserving a year's worth of food (or as close as you can get to a year), you need to look at how much of each food item your family currently goes through. 

Let's take green beans as an example.  If your family eats one can of green beans a week, that means you will need to can about 50 pints of green beans.  How many bean plants is that?  Well, that's where a nice chart comes in, and you can find some by searching on the internet.  What you want is one that gives approximate yield per foot (or row feet) of the most common veggies, along with something that translates that yield into how many pints or quarts of canned goods.  The Ball Blue Book of canning has a limited chart for this.  My newest copy (which was printed in 1997! I know they recommend getting the latest one, but honestly, for things I can year after year I don't even consult the book anymore anyway, so I wouldn't see any changes the USDA has made in processing times or methods.) says that for 60 quarts of green beans, you'd need to grow approx. 200 row feet of beans.  Since 60 quarts is the same as 120 pints, and we're only going for 50 pints, I think we can safely cut that down to 100 row feet--or probably even 80 row feet--and have enough beans.  Provided it's a good year, they grow, and you don't have problems with deer or beetles eating the plants.  Anyway, for about 100 row feet, we need 3 plants to the foot, so we'd need 300 bean seeds (assuming 100% germination.  Let's be safe and get a few more than 300, shall we?). 

4.  Now that you know how much you're trying to produce over a season, you can figure out how many seed packets, or what size seed packet you need of each thing you are planning to grow. (When you order vs. buy at the grocery/housewares/we-carry-everything store, you have a choice of packet sizes, which can end up being cheaper in the long run.)  For our example of green beans, we're looking for 300-400 seeds.  A good seed seller will list how many seeds per packet or per ounce (for small seeds) or per pound (for larger/heavier seeds).  Going to my favorite seed catalog (pictured above), I see that if I want to grow Kentucky Wonder Bush Beans--which are what my grandma always grew and are the bean I consider a green bean--there are 50 seeds to the packet, or about 900 seeds to the pound.  I can order these seeds by the packet, by the pound, by five pounds, or by ten pounds.  Hmm.  50 seeds per packet, I need at least 6 packets to get up to our desired 300 seeds.  So I look at the price per pound and see that 1 pound of bean seeds costs about $4.50 less than six packets.  So my best financial choice is to get the one-pound bag rather than six individual packets.

5.  Armed with that info, you can make informed decisions for your garden shopping.  Seeds are most viable when they are fresh, so with our buying a 1 pound bag of bean seed, we will probably only use around 1/3 of that pound.  What will we do with the other 2/3?  We could try to save them, knowing that our germination rate will be lower the next year, and that we will need to store them out of heat and humidity.  Or, we could see if we have any friends or neighbors who would like to split the package with us, recouping some of the cost of our bean seeds.  If the larger bag isn't a whole lot cheaper, and we don't have anyone to split it with, we might decide to go with those six individual packets instead, spending an extra few dollars and not having to worry about how and where to store those leftover seeds and take our chances with them the next year.

6. What if, once you figure out how much you want to grow of each thing, how many row feet that translates into, and how many/what size seed packets that equals, you  find out that your garden isn't big enough?  Then comes the agonizing decision of what to cut.  Do we reduce our bean patch (and our canning goal) in order to have room for pumpkins?  Or do we decide we can always buy a pumpkin for Halloween (maybe from the farmer down the road?  Or the neighbor who's backyard is annually a jungle of pumpkin vines?)  Or maybe we keep the pumpkins, but skip the pickling cucumbers this year since cukes take a lot of space and we're not sure we like homemade pickles anyway.

Just like being in the grocery store without a list can lead to purchasing way more than you intended to, so can perusing the seed catalogs without a plan and concrete numbers for your garden.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some Things You Just Cannot Predict

On a cold, snowy January 12th night, my best friend talked me into going on a blind double date with her.  Blind for me, as she was trying to set me up with a friend of her current boyfriend (she went through a lot of boyfriends at that point in her life).  So, somewhat grudgingly, I got gussied up, which wasn't all that gussied for most 19 year olds in 1991.  Especially not compared to how my friend prepared for a night out. My hair was big, but not huge, just naturally curly so I never had to bother with perming or teasing it.  Make-up was something I rarely wore, so was the requisite minimum of blue eye liner and black mascara.   I was thin back then, about 120 pounds, with long legs, so as far as clothes go, pretty much anything looked good on me. 

My friend picked me up about 8:30 that evening, and we drove to where the guys were supposed to meet us.  The plan was that the four of us would catch a movie together about quarter after nine. 

They never showed up.  We waited, and waited, and when they didn't come before the movie started, my friend and I decided it wasn't worth going to see.  Instead, she had the great idea of heading over toward the campus of the state university, and hitting one of the college bars there.  Both of us loved music, and dancing, so it seemed like a good way to salvage the evening.  After all, I was gussied up, something I rarely bothered with.

Around 10:00 p.m., two guys walked into the bar we were at.  My friend (remember, I said she went through alot of boyfriends back then?) immediately set her sights on one of them.  She assigned me the job of wing man, telling me I had to stand facing her, and she would stand with her back to the two guys who appeared to be friends, or at least, were there together, and I would keep an eye on them while appearing to have a conversation with her.  Great cover, huh?  The plan was that when the DJ put on the next slow song, I would let her know where the two guys were located, and she was going to go ask the shorter one of the two if he wanted to dance. 

I was satisfied with that assignment.  It was better than standing there actually trying to shout a conversation over the music, and so far no one had asked either of us to dance.  I stood facing her, watching the guys without noticeably stalking them.  As I stood there, keeping an eye on them, I thought the taller of the two looked more appealing, but, to each his own.  If she wanted to dance with the shorter one, I'd help her obtain that goal.  What was a best friend for?

The plan worked; I was able to navigate her to the shorter guy as soon as the DJ announced a slow-down in tempo.  She hooked the guy and went happily out to the dance floor.  I stood there, on the edge of where the dance floor and the bar met, lost in the crowd, and feeling rather shy, while the two of them danced.  When the music changed again, my friend returned, slipped her arm through mine, and told me we were going over to sit at a table.

Where she promptly dumped me in a seat next to the taller guy, while she returned to the dance floor with the shorter one.  Tall guy, who had blue eyes and a beard, looked as surprised as I was to be thrown together.  We made awkward conversation for a few songs until, when his friend and mine still hadn't left the dance floor, tall guy asked if I'd like to dance.

We did dance, for the larger portion of the next couple of hours, until the bar closed.  Even though I'd enjoyed dancing with him, and thought he'd enjoyed it too (after all, he hadn't danced with anyone but me the entire night), I was too shy to give him my phone number.  He didn't ask for it.  At least, not that night.  In the morning, he was regretting that.  After two days, he made his friend call my friend, who had of course given out her phone number, to get mine.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Tall guy and I began dating two days later.  The ironic thing is that neither one of us had been to that bar with the intent of finding someone to date.  I'd been dragged out that night on the premise of a double date with my best friend that I viewed as a favor to her.  He'd gone out only because the short guy, who was his childhood friend, distant cousin, and current roommate, had conned him into going along on the premise of free beer. 

Funny how things work out.  Two months after we met, tall guy asked if I'd consider moving away with him when he transferred schools.  Less than eight months after we'd met, I did just that. Two years and five months after that fateful January 12th  night, we were married. 

I can't believe it's been twenty-one years since I first laid eyes on that tall, blue-eyed, bearded man.  Like they say, time sure flies when you're having fun.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Me and My Big Mouth. . .

You're gonna laugh and shake your head over this one.  Or maybe just shake your head and then call the men with the nice white backwards jacket and padded cell to come and get me.

I opened my big mouth, seeing a need and realizing I had skills that seem to be rare these days. 

I opened my mouth and said "Hey, I could make that!" 

I opened my mouth and said "Ask your play director if she needs someone to do that."

I opened my mouth and said "She does need someone to do that?  Ok, tell her I can do that."

So, now I have exactly 37 days in which to get the pattern for, the materials for, and then sew FOUR mermaid costumes and ONE merman costume (and probably an Octopus costume) for The Little Mermaid, which is the play the local high school will be putting on in February.  Both of my daughters have roles in it; DD1 will be the little mermaid, and DD2 will be the octopus-like villainess.

Oh my goodness, what was I thinking?!?  It's a good thing it's January, which is typically a crafting month for me due to being winter and not having gardening or hunting or haying or food preserving to do.  I guess that quilt I was thinking about making can wait til next January. . .

I might not be blogging much in the next 37 days.

On the upside, apparently  I am now the high school play director's most favorite person in the world.  And my daughters think I'm pretty awesome, too!  :0)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Venison Gravy over Rice

That is what we had for dinner last night.  It's simple to make, mostly requires time rather than talent, and is very:
  • cheap
  • filling
  • nutritious

If you'd like to make it (you can substitute beef if you don't have venison), here's what you do.

Take 1 pound venison (or beef) stew meat.

Put the meat into a medium size bowl where you have mixed together
1/2 cup flour
1 Tbsp Lawry's seasoning salt
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper

Stir well to coat the meat with the seasonings and flour. 

Then, into a large (10") skillet that you have melted
1/4 cup lard or shortening
over medium heat

Dump the contents of your bowl into the skillet.  Yes, even the extra flour that didn't stick to the meat.  It will thicken your gravy as it cooks.

Brown the meat on both sides (stir lightly a few times, or turn each piece individually with a fork, ) then add
6 cups of water
Increase heat to high, until the water comes to a boil.

Stir the meat to make sure nothing is sticking, then put a cover on the skillet, turn the heat to medium-low, and let it simmer for about two hours.  Stir once in a while, and turn to low if it looks like the liquid is getting  lower than the amount of gravy you want (should simmer off 1-2 cups of liquid).

After the meat/gravy has been simmering for an hour, it's time to start the rice!  (Sorry, I didn't get pics of this).

In a 3 quart sauce pan (2 qt might work, but I've always used my 3), put
3 cups of water
1 1/2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp salt.

Heat water to boiling, then stir in
1 1/2 cups brown rice

When water returns to a boil, stir the rice, then cover the pan and turn heat to low for 25 minutes.  After 25 minutes, turn heat off but don't take the lid off pan or stir the rice!  Leave the pan, covered, on the hot burner for another 20 minutes.  After that, you can remove the lid, stir the rice and check for doneness.  Unless the rice is really crunchy or watery (in which case, put the lid on, turn the heat back on, and simmer for 10 min or so), your rice is ready now.

To serve, put a scoop (or several) of rice on your plate, and cover with the meat and gravy.  Serve a nice colorful veggie on the side (we had the last of the sweet potatoes from the garden), and you have a healthy, vitamin packed meal that will definitely fill you up.

Here's what the meat and gravy looked like when it was finished (and we'd eaten most of it--I forgot to take a picture before serving).

You can, of course, use white rice instead of brown (adjust the cooking time accordingly, about 30 min total for real rice that isn't instant.  I've never used instant rice, so I guess just cook it however the package says to).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Oh Happy Day!

It's not cold enough (it's January in Michigan and we've had exactly one day below freezing this month). 

It's not snowy enough (it's January in Michigan, and we've had a whole less-than-one-inch of snow this month, and that little bit only lasted one day).

It's cloudy (which means not very cheerful or inspiring outside,) but still, it's a happy day today.

Why?  Because when I went out at 12:30 p.m. to do a bit of maintenance in the chicken coop, I found this:

Yes, it's an egg.  In the chicken coop, where you'd expect an egg to be.  So why am I so geeked?

Because it's the First Egg of the Year!! 

My "girls" ("ladies", "chick-a birdies") don't have heat lamps or lights in their coop, so they stop laying in the fall when the days get too short and the weather cold. That is the natural order of chicken-ness, to conserve their energy into surviving the cold dark months when in nature food is scarcer and caloric needs are greater. They don't start laying again until we get far enough past the winter solstice that the days get long and bright enough to stimulate them back into production. 

Two weeks ago, I ran out of my last 'real' egg--as opposed to 'store eggs' (what we call those insipid pale-yolked things from the grocery store).  All my local friends with chickens had also reached the point where their flocks were no longer producing enough eggs to sell (I had been buying from them since around Thanksgiving time).  So I've been choking down store eggs (which, after a while, upset my stomach; the reason I began my home flock in the first place) since shortly before Christmas.  This morning I couldn't even finish my omelet (made with store eggs) before I got that unwelcome queasy feeling that let me know I've been eating store eggs too long.  This caused some mental consternation because DH loves his eggs for breakfast, and I like having breakfast with him before he heads off to work.  If I could no longer have an egg breakfast, that was going to put a monkey wrench in our morning bonding breakfasts.

And that is why I am in such a state of ecstasy over an egg on the floor of my hen house.

To find a freshly laid egg in my own coop today is something akin to winning the lottery.  It's a Godsend, a gift from above--my hens are gearing up for another season of egg laying!  I shall have decent eggs again!  Breakfast with DH is saved! Hallelujah!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Frugal Food #11 The Pantry

Most old houses were built with pantries--a small room in which to keep dry goods, canned goods, and other foods  that didn't require refrigeration.  This was a necessary place to store a summer's and fall's harvest back in the days when stores weren't open 24/7 and didn't stock every imaginable edible under the sun (and quite a few you'd never imagine on your own).  Think about it; if you had to get a whole year's worth of applesauce or green beans, or flour all at once--because that's how it happens in nature--how much space would that take up?  Where would you put it?

Today's pantries, if a house even has one at all, are often much smaller.  What I call my pantry is a cabinet 5' wide by 12" deep by 6' tall that spans about a third of one wall in my (very large) kitchen.  When we were building the house, and designing the kitchen, I told the (Home Depot) kitchen design guy that I needed a pantry that would hold two weeks of food for 6 people.  He thought I was crazy; afterall, who keeps that much food on hand at once?  There are grocery stores all over the place, some even open 24/7. . .

So, if I keep only 2 weeks worth of food in my pantry, does that mean I only have 2 weeks worth of edibles in my home at any one time?  NO!  That 2 weeks was a base. That was how much I wanted to be able to store in my kitchen.  My pantry actually houses a 2-3 week rotation, plus my baking supplies. 

baking supplies, canned fruits veggies and meats, pb & unopened jellies (one each flavor), seasoning mixes, pickles and salsas, "cereal" (granola)

snack nuts (vs ones for baking with), crackers, coffee and cocoa mix, oats, pastas, dried beans and peas, lentils, bulgur, quinoa, potatoes onions and garlic, jugs of molasses, worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, corn syrup (ie anything not needing refrigeration after opening--due to high vinegar content usually--despite what the USDA/manufacturer's don't-sue-me label says)

The rest of the canned goods, extra flour, sugar, etc, are stored in my basement  and cellar where there is more room.  There have been times, now and then, that we've had a lean month financially and I've fed the family from what we had on hand, saving that grocery money for other things (like the electric bill, or gas for the car so DH can get to work and back).  What would you do with $300-400 one month if you didn't have to buy food?

Which brings me to a key point.  Just because you don't have a large kitchen with a big cabinet or a separate pantry doesn't mean you can't keep more than a few days' worth of food on hand.  It's always cheaper to buy on sale, in season, and in bulk (IF you use it up before it goes bad).   Your 'pantry' could be the space under your bed.  It could be a coat closet you never actually use for coats (if it's full of junk and you rarely open the door, clear out all the junk, sell it, give it away or throw it away, and stock that closet with edibles!).  It could be an extra bedroom your grown children only sleep in a few nights a year.  It could be a corner of your basement,

butternut squash from the garden, stored near the basement stairs

Or even in an outbuilding if you live in a temperate climate and use rodent-proof bins to store your food in. 

Be creative.  Think outside the box.  Discover storage space you didn't know you had. 

Use a bookcase if you've got one and not very many books. 
my extra flour and sugar (I buy 20-30 pounds of each at a time)

 Or even the top to a hutch (this one was free on Craigslist--look how much it holds!)
extra canned goods from the store (homecanned ones are in cellar), oils, crackers, pastas, etc bought in quantity on sale

By having a pantry--a designated storage area for non-refrigerated foods--you will be able to eat more affordably by buying things on sale or in season (cheaper to purchase), or storing your home canned garden bounty.  So if you have any usable space at all--a corner, a closet currently cluttered with junk, or the place where the dust bunnies live under your bed--turn it into something profitable instead of just empty square footage you are paying rent or a mortgage and taxes on.

Combine this with a stand-alone freezer, and you'll really be able to put a dent in your grocery expenses.  If you have the right climate and the space, go for a trifecta by adding a cellar to the mix.  I've kept potatoes from fall harvest till spring planting in my cellar, and kept apples crisp all the way from October until about February or March.  Look for a frugal food post on cellars in the coming months.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Are we odd?

Is my family odd, or just a remnant of times gone by?  Here are some of the things we did yesterday:

fed the horses and chickens, as well as the dog and cats

stoked the wood burner to keep the house warm and hot water for showering

cut up a whole chicken (that had been raised here), then made barbecue sauce from scratch to marinate the chicken in before grilling it for dinner (yes, it's January, but it was a warm day--upper 30's!)

saved the chicken back and the ribs (made boneless breasts when I cut it up) for making soup in a few days

DH and DS2 worked on repairing DS2's car so he can drive it back to college this weekend (replacing gaskets on intake manifold)

baked bread for the next week: 4 loaves

dinner was bbq chicken, butternut squash (from my stash in the basement, grown in 2011), green beans, and buttered bread

took pumpkin puree out of the freezer to thaw to make chocolate chip pumpkin bread out of (DS2's request as 'snack food' for the 500 mile drive back to school)

To me, all this sounds pretty natural. Just another day in the life. Then I got to thinking, how many people

--know how to cut up a whole chicken?
--raise their own chickens for meat?
--make bbq sauce instead of buying it in a bottle from the store?
--would save the 'meatless' pieces of chicken to boil down for soup?
--have to manually do something to ensure their home has heat every day?
--repair their own vehicles?
--bake bread instead of buying it at the store?
--cook dinner instead of heating in the microwave some ready-to-eat pre-made thing from the store ?
--would ever grill anything in a month other than May, June, July, August or early September?
--grow their own veggies and store them for the winter eating season?
--all sit down to eat as a family, every night?
--know you can make bread out of pumpkin?  Let alone have ever eaten it, and consider it delicious?

I can't imagine not having this knowledge, these skills, doing these things.  Yet, once upon a time, when I was still in high school and living in my parents' home, we ate out so often that the local McDonalds would start compiling our order as soon as we walked in the door, we didn't even have to tell the person at the register what we wanted (cheese burger, pickles only; filet of fish, no cheese, Big Mac. . . )  I'm guessing more people today are like my childhood family than my adulthood one.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

DIY Cereal

Granola.  Otherwise know at this little place here as cereal.  It's what's for breakfast when we aren't having something cooked (eggs and toast, coffee cake or pancakes, biscuits and gravy).  I stopped buying breakfast cereal at the store a long, long time ago. I didn't like a) the price per box, b) the fact that my four kids could eat an entire box in one day (really blowing the grocery budget!!), c) all the artificial ingredients, preservatives, etc in the commercially made cereals, d) how hungry we were within a short time of eating a bowl of cereal.  Right about that time, I was reading Rural Renaissance  by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist, and in the book they shared their granola recipe.  I tried it, and we were hooked!

Granola, not just for breakfast; it's also what's for a quick snack, a crunchy topping on yogurt or ice cream, or even the occasional lunch.  It's easy to make, easy to store, and easy to digest. Bonus: no preservatives and it's very filling!!

Granola is a nebulous thing; there are many combinations of ingredients and everyone has their own favorites.  With nuts or without.  Sweetened with honey, brown sugar, and/or maple syrup.  Seeds?  Sesame and sunflower, optional.  Oats are a must.  Dehydrated fruit, if you like.  

Granola is not a difficult thing to make; in fact, if you have an oven and a big pan (or a couple 8" x 11" or 9" x 13" ones), you should give it a try.  Try it, you'll like it!

Here's my basic granola recipe:

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.  Grease your baking pan(s).  I use butter wrappers to grease with; there's usually just enough butter left on the wrapper once you take out the stick to grease a pan.  I haven't bought non-stick pan spray in about 10 years since I learned this trick.

In a small sauce pan, combine
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup canola oil
2 Tbsp water
heat over medium heat, stirring, until it simmers.  Do not let it boil.  Then stir in
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

While your honey mixture is heating, in a large bowl, put
6 cups oats (oatmeal aka rolled oats, old fashioned oats, etc)
1 cup chopped nuts (I use a combination of walnuts and pecans, but use whatever nuts you like)
1/2 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds

Pour the simmered honey mixture over the ingredients in the bowl, and stir together well until all the oats, nuts, seeds, etc are coated.  Put it all into the greased pan(s), and bake for 60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes.  The stirring is important, don't skip it, it keeps things from getting burnt.  At the end of the 60 minutes of baking, remove pan(s) to a cooling rack (or racks).  Let granola cool completely, stirring occasionally.  The more often you stir it, the looser and more free-flowing it will be.  For chunkier granola, stir less often during the cooling process.  Once totally cooled, store in an airtight container.

Here's a recipe I was given by a friend, that I am still playing with to get it to the consistency I want. 

Pumpkin Granola
1/2 stick (4 Tbsp) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 Tbsp vanilla
2 Tbsp cinnamon
1 cup pumpkin (cooked and mashed or pureed, not raw!)
1/2 cup chopped pecans
3 cups oats

Preheat oven to 250 degrees (I think next time I'll try it at 275, actually).  Grease/butter your baking pan.  Put everything except nuts and oats into a saucepan and heat on med-low heat until butter and sugar have melted and everything is blended together.  Pour this over the nuts and oats, stir to coat, then pour into baking pan.  Bake 60 minutes, stirring every 15 min. Remove from oven. Cool completely, stirring occasionally.

The pumpkin granola is a delicious twist, but so far it keeps coming out a bit wetter than I'd like.  Which is why I'm thinking of upping the oven temp. a bit.  Or, it could be because I'm using homegrown pumpkin, versus pumpkin from a can sold at the store.  My pumpkin is always runnier than store canned pumpkin (possibly because it's pumpkin, not squash. Trivia: did you know the 'pumpkin' sold in cans at the store usually is not pumpkin, but squash?). But since this recipe has no oil, there's not any liquid to reduce to make the granola less moist (unless I cut out the melted butter. . . )

As I stated above, granola is kind of a nebulous thing. There's no one hard and fast method of making it, or ingredients to put in.  Make some.  Play with the recipe a bit if it comes out wetter or drier than you'd wanted.  Decrease the cooking time if your oven seems to cook it faster (it should brown a little, but not past golden).  Add some spices.  Subtract some nuts if you're allergic.  Use less or different sweeteners or oils/fats.  Make it yours, but definitely make it!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Monkey

I have a monkey on my back.  (Insert horrified gasps of righteous readers here)

Not only do I have a monkey on my back, but I'm going to be bold enough to state that I believe a lot of you do too.  (Insert offended, indignant noises of righteous readers here)

You see, that monkey's name is Sugar.  What a sweet sounding name.  Yet, how addicting and bad for us is that sweet little monkey?  (Insert pause for reflection, then slow, knowing nods of righteous readers here)  He causes us to crave empty calories, to have mood swings, to experience mental and physical crashes when our blood sugar nosedives, to carry more weight than we want, to feel bad about ourselves. That's not so sweet now is it?

We Americans love sweets.  It must be so.  Just look how long the candy, cookie, and ice cream aisles are at the grocery store.  The soft drink aisle.  The breakfast cereal aisle, about 90% of which is pre-sweetened.  The bakery department with it's cakes, cupcakes, pies, and doughnuts.  If none of those aisles existed, how big would the grocery store need to be?  3/4 the size?  1/2 the size?  1/3 the size?  Even smaller?

So don't  be ashamed of your sugar monkey.  He has a very big extended family, all clinging to the backs of your neighbors, friends, co-workers and relatives.

Recognize your monkey and tame him.  Be his boss, stop letting him control what you eat, what you weigh, and how you live.  January is a time when many people resolve to lose weight, to start exercising, to start a new diet.  Adds for gyms and weight loss products clog the TV and radio waves.  What about you?  Have you thought "I should exercise more this year?" or "I should lose weight this year?" or "I should eat better this year?"

Let's start with eating better (feel free to add in exercise, and losing weight will undoubtedly follow 'like magic').  That's one of my goals for 2012: to tame my sugar monkey by eating better.  I all ready don't drink soft drinks, eat breakfast cereal (homemade granola is my cereal) and I avoid artificial sweeteners due to the nasty things they do to my body (namely cause sudden and severe headaches as well as the overwhelming urge to eat more).  Sugar, real sugar, has been my holdout because I have a sweet tooth.  But it's time for that little monkey named Sugar to stop having such a big influence on my life.

This year I'll be trying out recipes using more natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup.  I'll be reducing the amount of sweets (even though they are homemade) that I eat.  No need to eat 3 or 4 cookies for a snack, when one provides the taste I'm after.

I'll be learning to satisfy my sweet tooth with fruits and veggies instead of cookies or brownies.  Join me.  Let's read labels on the products we buy and avoid those that have unnecessary sugar added (and artificial sweenteners--I abhor artificial sweeteners for the non-diabetic and could do a whole soapbox post on just them). Let's try homemade sweets using honey and/or maple syrup. Let's swap recipes.  Let's tame those monkeys together.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What a Difference a Day Makes

January first began warm and wet.  It was above 40 degrees--remember we're talking Michigan on January first here (40 being very warm for January)--and the ground was muddy.  DH had recently been up north to the cabin on what was once part of the old family farm (his great-grandparents?  or was it the great-greats? who lived there first).  Anyway, because the weather was so unseasonably warm, he dug up some overcrowded young pine trees and brought them home for transplanting. He grew up just a few miles down the road from the cabin, in Michigan's northwoods, and with 30 acres of field at this little place here, he's always willing to add more trees. 

After we got home from church on the first, he and I went outside to plant those little trees.  It took all of about half an hour, and when we were done, the gray sky was spitting rain, and a wind was kicking up from the west.  We gladly went inside and snuggled up on the couch to watch the Lions/Packers game on TV.  Across the bottom of the screen, winter weather advisories were scrolling, warning us of winds 45-50 mph, falling temps, and the possibility of 1-5" of snow in the next 24 hours.

Shortly after half-time began (and I was making chicken wings in the deep fryer), the electricity went out.  It proceeded to stay out for the next seven hours.  Not a huge deal at this little place here (other than missing the second half of the game), as the cabin up north has neither electricity, nor running water, nor indoor plumbing.  That's where we go for "fun" and "relaxation", LOL.  So we just adjusted our dinner plans to something that could be cooked on the gas cook top, went into water conservation mode (ie no flushing), and when the sun went down, we lit a few oil lamps.  Instead of TV and Internet, we had an evening of board games and euchre with the teens.  Family fun for everyone!

The next morning, DH and I were extremely glad we'd planted those trees when we had.  The ground, which had been so soft and spring-like the morning before, was now thoroughly frozen.  So frozen, in fact, that DH was able to drive the tractor out across the field without making even a tire track.

He and the two DDs took the trailer and chainsaw out to the edge of the woods, where late last summer we'd felled some dead trees and left them with the intent to haul them in once the ground froze in the fall.  This was the first time since then the ground had been frozen enough to drive the tractor over (it's been really rainy/warm this fall).   They spent a couple of hours outside in single-digit wind chills cutting up those trees into firewood, which they loaded onto the trailer and brought back up to the stack near the wood burner.

heading across the frozen field

DD2 piling brush (small limbs), DD1 loading trailer, DH (orange hat behind trailer) cutting up tree trunk

to give you some idea of distance from edge of yard to edge of woods

What a difference a day makes!  In just 24 hours we went from planting trees in warm, soggy ground, to crossing the frozen field with a tractor and many hundred pounds of wood.  (And as you can see, we didn't get the snow they were predicting.)