Sunday, March 29, 2009

Low Hanging Fruit

Like many people, our sense of security, based on relatively high earning power, careful and cautious investment in the stock market and real estate, fell apart practically overnight. We should have seen it coming and in many ways we did. But we ignored it, willfully. We made ourselves believe that we just didn't understand the markets, that economics followed some other laws of existence, that even though we knew in our bones that something was very wrong with the way we, and most other people and institutions were operating, the markets would adjust, correct themselves.

So when things fell apart, we spent a few months convincing ourselves things had not fallen apart. We tossed and turned all night; we ate our own livers with nervous fear.

I'd also been for a long time feeling overwhelmed and sad about the destructive way we live -- eating factory farmed food that treats animals like objects and the earth like a big trash can, stuff made in a world economy that treats people in other countries like objects, excessive and obscene habits of consumption that we pass on to our children.

Then it occured to me that true security and peace is not based on how much we earn, how much we invest, or how much we own, but on how we live. True security is based on not needing a whole lot, on being creative producers instead of mindless consumers.

I set out to reevaluate and transform our lives. In just a few months I feel like we're living different lives. We sleep better; we work together on projects; our house looks better. We spend less and less time shopping and more and more time living.

In some ways, we're still in the easy part. We're in charted territory. Who knows what the future holds.

But we've made such progress. I've said before that I never set out precisely to save money. The idea was to create the kind of life that would feel relaxed, peaceful, secure, and useful. Nevertheless, I have been astonished at how much less we spend than we used to. In part, this is because we spent so carelessly in the past. In our own defense, most people that we know spend just as carelessly, perhaps more so, than we do. Nevertheless, it's true. We spent what we earned on things that ended up in landfill as fast as people lost faith in Bernie Madoff.

These few months have been just us picking the low hanging fruit off the vine. It's been making the easiest, most pleasurable changes first -- the ones that help us live better, from an economic, environmental, pleasure-creating, and ethical standpoint. Here are some examples:

1) Heating bills: I really love warm weather and like to keep the house warm in winter. In fact Widget Man and I had compromised at keeping the house at 79 when he was home. When he left, I'd often turn it to 80, 81, even 82. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that trading a t-shirt, shorts, and bare feet for a sweater, pants, and socks meant that 65 degrees was plenty warm. We even turned the heat off altogether for weeks at a time. Now I can't imagine how I used to stand weird, hot, heater air blowing in my face all the time.

2) Turning off lights, powering down the computer and other electronics. Surprise! It's easy to flip off switches. Takes almost no upper body strength.

3) Limiting driving. Why didn't I implement this before? Driving is a torturous combination of boring and stressful.

4) Having no-shopping-at-all weeks. We just decided that for a particular week we'd buy nothing at all. What a relief and time saver.

5) A no disposable policy. I switched to cloth napkins, dishcloths, homemade scrubbers and glass food storage. We still have a few rolls of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, but I reuse this stuff until it falls apart. After these rolls are gone, I won't buy anymore.

6) All homemade cleaning products -- very easy, and much more effective than commercial products. Promise.

9) Eating our own fruits and veggies, from the garden. The only things I still buy are bananas, clementines, avocados and just recently, I caved and bought a pineapple. O tempting tropical fruits, why can't I quit you?

9) Cooking from scratch

10) Hanging out about half our laundry. I have a system for this that actually makes it easier than using the dryer. More on this later.

11) No more bottled water

12) Homemade bath soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and deodorant. Better for your skin and better for the environment.

Like I said, these are just a few little things. More will come to me later, I'll bet.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chook Envy

I just learned this word: Chook.

Chook, chook, chook.

I learned the word while sighing over home steading blogs. I was sighing because some lucky people have chooks, also known as chickens, scratching and pecking, making eggs and natural fertilizer, and I don't.

I suppose I could get some, but first I need to figure out how to keep precious little chooks safe from raccoons,snakes, roaming feral dogs, roaming neighbor's dogs, hawks, and the many, many coyotes who chat it up all night long from a number of suspiciously close locations encircling my property.

And then there are my own predacious canine companions, one of whom has come this close to catching and eating an actual wild turkey. Said wild turkey weighed twenty or more pounds and was capable of a reasonable, if wobbly, version of flight. And, being of the wild variety, I assume it was not unfamiliar with predators. And yet, my dog-girl bit it and tasted tail feathers before it flew off in a flurry of down and panic.

So no chooks until I build a suitable razor wired, alarmed, bunkered encampment.

While I plan my chook encampment, I am all envy for my good friend's urban chook flock, pictured above. Those little birds are so stinking cute I can hardly stand it. Soon my friend will be in egg and chicken poo heaven. Breakfasts will delight; gardens will thrive; all will be right.

General Purpose Homemade Soap

This homemade soap is fast and foolproof. It's inexpensive to make, too. It uses vegetable shortening, which I just discovered, was actually developed as a substitute for lard and tallow, in soap making, during World War II.

I use as a general purpose household cleaner -- grated into homemade laundry soap, as a laundry stain pretreatment, blended with water for use as a dishwashing soap (not for the dishwasher, for hand washing!), and as an emulsifier in other formulas for washing counters, cabinets, bathrooms, and floors.

It's also fine as a hand and bath soap, although we usually use an olive oil and mint soap for this, just out of personal preference.

This is a huge recipe. It's easily enough to last a year, and give some away too.

The basic ingredients are
(2) 3 LB cans vegetable shortening
12 oz lye
24 oz water
1/2 oz lavender essential oil, optional

Just follow basic soap making methods:

1) melt fats, in non-reactive container (I use a stainless steel pot.)
2) add lye to water, in non-reactive container (I use a pyrex bowl with pour spout.)
3) when fats and water are about the same temp, combine
4) stir, stir, stir, in gentle figure 8 pattern, until soap traces, using non-reactive spoon or immersion blender
5) add scent, if using
6) pour into molds, wrap to retain heat (I use a plastic shoe box)
7) when soap has hardened (24-48 hours) cut into bars
8) cure for 2 weeks or so before using (I use a cake stand, to take up less space and allow for air flow.)

These are very broad stroke directions. If you've never made soap before, you'll want to read up first -- it's easy but lye is nothing to be haphazard with. All the usual cautions apply: Wear safety gear. I arm up like a 16th century samurai: long sleeves, long pants, closed shoes, hair back, elbow length heavy rubber gloves (make sure they're well-fitted so hands will be nimble!). I even wear a mask while I'm pouring the lye. I've never read any directions that require a mask, but I always wonder if breathing lye powder or fumes is all that good an idea. Also, keep vinegar handy, to neutralize lye just in case an accident occurs. Finally, keep children and pets well-away while making soap.

That said, I've never had a single mishap with lye or soap. Not even a minor burn or scratch. Which is not something I can say about any other cooking or household task. Maybe it's the National Emergency level of safety cautions I take for lye -- as opposed to the haphazard approach I take to most parts of life.

Speaking of haphazard, this soap is so foolproof that I sometimes measure by volume instead of by weight. Don't do that! Seriously, don't. Every book on soap making says you absolutely cannot measure by volume, or gigantic disasters will occur. And it's no big deal to just use a scale and measure by weight. I have a postal scale I use. It was inexpensive, and is a generally handy device, which has paid for its purchase many times over. So there's never, ever any reason to measure by volume.

Still, sometimes I do it, as I did this time. I don't know why. Just some kind of contrarian impulse. The worst thing that's ever happened is once my soap came out a bit soft. But still, listen to the experts and never, never measure by volume.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Homemade Bread for the Lazy & Imprecise Baker

This loaf is the happy result of combining two easy bread making techniques. The first is based on the no-knead bread technique that I first found in the New York Times, although there are versions of it all over the internet. The idea behind this technique is to make a very, very wet dough and allow it to rise 12 hours or longer. The bread is cooked in a heavy, lidded pan (I use a Le Crueset dutch oven) which is preheated in an extremely hot oven. It's amazing. The resulting loaf is something I thought only bakers could manage -- crisp, crackling crust; airy, custardlike crumb. It's as close to a baguette as I've ever seen from a home baker.

It's also incredibly easy, very forgiving of my careless measuring and timing techniques, and as the name implies, no kneading is involved. Still, sometimes I just can't be pleased.

So when I saw this book: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, I thought, "Hey, I've been cheated." That other bread takes me close to eight or nine minutes to make. Maybe even ten minutes. Give me my minutes back, lousy NYT article.

Turns out the basic technique here is similar, in a more complicated kind of way. You still make a wet dough, but you make a whole lot more of it at a time -- enough for four or five loaves, usually. Then it's stored in the fridge, ready to be tossed in the oven at the lazy baker's convenience. Sort of.

I say sort of because in this version, there's a tiny, tiny amount of kneading, a few minutes to let the dough rest, and then a few minutes more for it to rise. Then there's greasing a pan, preheating a pizza stone, adding a tray of steaming water to the oven. What a production. I haven't actually timed this process but it's gotta be six, maybe even seven minutes long. No way is it five. Sheesh.

Anyway, just to be difficult, and because I can, I combined the two techniques. I generally follow the NYT recipe and it's variations, but I just multiply it by 5, and store it in the fridge.
Or, I follow one of the recipes in Artisan Bread, skip the pizza stone + steamy water production, and use the heavy lidded pan, preheated + super hot over technique instead.

This is my (sort of) recipe for a 100% Whole Wheat Bread. Naturally, it's heavier than a bread with white flour, and the crust isn't as crackling, but that's the price for whole wheat, as far as I know. It's still the closest to a baguette I've been able to accomplish without the white devil flour.

2 c lukewarm water
1 & 1/2 c lukewarm milk
2 tbs yeast
1 tbs + 1 tsp salt
1/2 c blackstrap molasses (the orginal recipe called for honey, but I was out the first time, and ended up liking molasses better)
5 tbs olive oil
6 & 2/3 c whole wheat flour

1. Mix yeast, salt, molasses, oil, milk, and water in 5 quart container.
2. Mix in remaining ingredients with a spoon. No need to knead. Dough should be soft, shaggy, and stirable. If it's not add more warm water, just a little at a time.
3. Cover lightly and leave in a warm place for yeast to develop. I often leave it overnight.
4. You can make a loaf now, or anytime in the next week or two. Store what you don't make in the fridge.
5. When ready to bake, take out a melon size ball of dough and gently shape into a loose ball. Drop it in a bowl lined with wax paper or plastic wrap, and well dusted with cornmeal or flour (I like semolina flour).
6. Sprinkle with more flour, then cover with plastic, paper, or cloth. Let rise a couple of hours.
7. About 30 minutes before baking time, put a heavy lidded pan in the oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
8. When oven is hot, carefully pull out hot pan. Drop dough in pan, give it a little shake to center it, and then, if you like, score loaf with knife of scissors.
9. Bake 30 minutes with the lid on the pan. Remove lid and check bread. It should be very dark brown and sound hollow when thumped. If not, return pan to oven, without lid and bake some more -- often it takes another 10-15 minutes.

That's it! You have another 3 or 4 loaves worth of dough in the oven, ready to bake with about, oh, five minutes of prep.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Simple Soap Recipe

This is an easy, inexpensive all-purpose soap. I use it to make dishwashing and laundry soap mostly, but it's also just fine for a bath and hand soap.

The main ingredient is Crisco, or some similar brand of vegetable shortening.

Start by gathering equipment.

You'll need

1) A big spoon for stirring. Although it's not required, an immersion blender makes the process go much more quickly. Say, five minutes of stirring versus an eternity.

2) A scale. Most soap recipes measure ingredients by weight rather than volume. I use an inexpensive postal scale.

3) A soap mold. In this case, I used a plastic shoe box. Most recipes suggest oiling the mold with something like mineral oil, or lining it with plastic. I find I don't need to do this with flexible plastic molds.

4) A large non-reactive pot for cooking processing the soap. I use a stainless steel soup pot.

5) A large, heavy glass bowl for mixing lye and water. I make large batches at once so I use an eight cup Pyrex measuring bowl. It's nice that it also has a handle.

6) a wooden spoon for stirring lye and water.

7) a cooking thermometer

8) Safety equipment. This includes safety glasses and heavy gloves. Long sleeves, long pants, and closed shoes wouldn't hurt either.

Always use non-reactive containers and utensils -- that means wood, plastic or stainless steel. And protect counters with thick sheets of newspapers. More importantly, remember you will be working with a strong caustic, so keep children and pets well away. That said, with simple precautions, soap making is easy and pleasant. I've yet to burn myself or anyone else.

The Ingredients

(2) 3 lb cans of vegetable shortening
12 oz lye
24 oz water

essential oil is optional. I added about a half ounce of lavender essential oil.


1) At medium to low temperature, melt vegetable shortening in large pot on the stove.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Peculiar Kind of Lazy

I'll do anything to avoid shopping. Traffic, parking, shouldering through crowds under neon lights, standing in long check-out lines, dealing with surly clerks -- these things are my special hell.

Actually, for the particular item I needed, I just needed to drive a few miles along a pleasant country lane and pull into a small grocery store, where I can park right up front. There are never any lines or crowds, and the clerks are suspiciously cheerful and friendly. Plus, what I needed to buy costs about a dollar.

Still, I am that peculiar kind of lazy who would rather make something from scratch than go to the store and get it.

So when I noticed I was almost out of homemade laundry detergent, I was determined not to go to the store to replenish supplies. By supplies I mean the bar of basic soap to be grated and mixed with baking soda and borax. I just finished making a huge supply of homemade household soap for this specific purpose, but it'll be another week or so before that's cured. So I dug through every drawer in the house until I came upon a bar of hotel soap from a trip I made to Mexico with my sister several years ago. Very sad, I know, to hoard such an item, but there you have it, me in a nutshell.

It's heavily perfumed but mixed with the other ingredients, and then further mixed with the last of the previous batch of laundry soap, it should last until my homemade soap is cured. And I avoided a trip to the store.

Seeds Rise from the Dead!

I recall with great sadness the crop failure of a few weeks ago. Those poor, poor seeds that I baked in my hot oven, when, in a moment of forgetfulness, I preheated my oven without first removing this little tray of soil cubes and seed. It was supposed to be a safe place -- safe from drafts and marauding dogs. It was meant to have a supply of just-right heat from one tiny light bulb. It was meant to be free from drafts. It was meant to be an easy-care, space saving, out of the way place to raise little seeds from dormancy, just before placing them under a grow-light.

Instead it was a fiery inferno that melted the plastic lid on the soil holder. I couldn't really face the whole sad mess, so I just stuck what was left on the back deck, under the picnic table and tried to forget my crime.

Unbelievably, by the time I finally got around to facing my crimes, this is what I found -- a dozen or more sprouted seeds. If these guys make it to the garden, and actually produce, I will save some of these incredible resurrecting seeds to pass on.

Update on Tomato Starts

Tomato Starts

The new seed starting station is amazing! The starts have thick, juicy roots, bright green leaves, and can't wait to live in my garden and make many, many fat tomatoes.

New Kitchen Cupboards

Take a look at these babies! New, made by Widget Man, pull-out kitchen cabinets.