Saturday, December 31, 2011

Holiday Overload

So it appears I missed Christmas this year or rather I missed posting about Christmas which is a shame because I actually had a post pretty much written and I took photos and everything but I ran out of time before we left  for Sarnia so I brought my camera to my parents and tried to upload the photos to my mom's laptop but she uses Windows 7 and I am still stuck on XP so I couldn't figure out how to download just the few most recent pics without  having to download the entire card which is of course always full of pictures I haven't yet deleted for the past year and it takes ages to download a whole card just to delete them all so I gave up and just enjoyed a nice Christmas with my family and then I tried again on my sister's laptop while we were in a crummy hotel for 2 days in Port Hope while her daughter spent time with her dad but my sister's laptop has the same operating system so I thought I'd do it once I got home but when I got back the Russian and I had our own holiday which we invented to split the difference between my traditional gift exchange day (Christmas) and his (New Year) but for some silly reason we decided to exchange gifts on all three this year and I still needed to finish getting his last gift together so since I was in the store anyhow I did a little boxing day sale shopping for things we actually needed and spent $150 at Zellers somehow then last night there was a reunion concert of a band that I used to love and today I am hungover like it's 1996 and trying to look at the computer screen is making my head hurt more and I needed to finish the blogpost for my genealogy blog today because today was the anniversary of the day my grandma passed away and tomorrow I will be at the zoo with the Russian because he is performing in the New Year festivities and then we invited everyone here on New Years Day for a levee (traditional rather than political, at least I hope) so I should really be cleaning or maybe sleeping but I'm on holidays for another 4 days so I keep thinking there's time but I still want to do a year end post before year end and I think I may be out of time for that one too unless I decided to get up really early tomorrow which isn't likely and besides I still haven't done a Dark Days post for this week which is mostly because I haven't actually eaten a SOLE meal since my last post and I may just be a little strung out on sugar and junk food and I'm so glad it's almost over for another year because I think I may have forgotten how to breathe but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Merry (belated) Christmas and a Happy New Year from the farm cats, the Russian and me! Hope your holidays were spectacular!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dark Days Week 2 and 3, Plus 'Local' Apple Juice

Since my first Dark Day's dinner seemed to come together with little effort I decided to try something a little more challenging last week. I had a spaghetti squash stored from the summer and a variety of local veggies as well as wild leek pesto that I had frozen and I thought they would go well together. I baked the squash, chopped some of the same bacon from last week, added some mushrooms, onions and garlic, all local as well as the frozen stuff and heated it all together in a cast iron frying pan. Truth be told, it didn't look very appetizing and didn't taste all that great either, even after I smothered it with lovely Tuscano cheese from Monteforte. The Russian thought it was okay but I think I've just discovered that I don't like spaghetti squash. At all. So much for that plan.

So I tried again this week with something I'm more familiar with - Beef Bourguignon! This is not a truly authentic version- no pearl onions for starters but it's tasty just the same. I used some stewing beef which was a gift from a farming friend in Stouffville, more of the bacon, local onions, mushrooms and garlic, frozen local carrots, and fresh thyme and oregano from the herb garden outside (which are still going in spite of a few hard frosts now). The bourguignon in this case was actually Baco Noir from Pelee Island, which is a tad outside the 150 mile radius but still in southern Ontario. To make it even more local I could have used a wine from the Niagara region but this one was already open and I think it suits this dish. The best part of this recipe is that I made it in the slow cooker so it took very little effort. I served it with mashed Ontario potatoes and the last of the tiny brussel sprouts from the garden. So good...

I'm still adjusting to having a regular work week again, even tho it's only part time. It's been 5 years since I last held a job with semi regular hours so I've gotten spoiled with the amount of time I've had to experiment with different recipes and pick up ingredients on a whim. Meals lately have been a lot more sporadic and thrown together without much thought so it's been nice to take the time to plan out at least one good meal a week and thankfully we have still lots of great local food stored in various forms to work with. The brussel sprouts and some kale are the last of the home grown fresh produce so there will be be more trips to the market from here out if we want fresh veggies. Can't complain about having anything from the garden in the middle of December tho!

A note for those of you in Ontario: On a recent trip to Zellers I discovered Allen's apple juice on sale for $.99  for a 1L can, which a great price. We drink a lot of juice in this house so we stocked up. Even more intriguing however is that these are Special Edition cans of juice, apparently because they contain 100% juice from "fresh Ontario apples". On one hand I am delighted to find local apples being used for commercially prepared juice, but it seem more than a little sad that what used to be the norm now rates as a cause for celebration. Just a quick check of stats for 2010 reveals that in Ontario we harvested about 280 million pound of apples, with the majority of those sold as fresh (about 211 million lbs)  but only 67 million lbs went into processing. That actually sounds like a good thing but when you consider how much apple by-products are used in the manufacturing of other stuff like mixed fruit juices and that imported apple juice concentrate from China cost about one fifth of the price, you can see why we rarely get local apples used in products manufactured in Canada, even if they are labelled as such. As long 51% of the manufacturing costs are incurred in Canada, the product can be labelled made in Canada, even if the only local ingredient in it is the water used to dilute the apple concentrate!  In 2006, Canada imported over 21 million litres of apple juice from China (I couldn't find a more recent statistic but I'm pretty certain that number didn't decrease in the last few years) .

I am prepared to vote with my dollar as the expression goes, and buy up as many tins of this as I can find room to store and I  also wrote the manufacturer (A. Lassonde Inc. ) an email to let them know I appreciate the effort to support local produce. If you have Zellers near you it might be worth picking up a few tins, if only to encourage both the use of local produce and the labelling of such!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Books for Blustery Days

It's a chilly one out there today. It rained all day yesterday and we even got some wet snow last night but I'm not complaining because if it were a few degrees colder we'd have been buried in snow by now. It's still cold tho and the kind of damp that gets in your bones. It's a good day to stay inside, make a pot of tea and delve into one of the large stack of books that I've been working my way through. Too bad I'm off to work instead. I start my new job today!

Remember my Crossroads post a few weeks back? Well all the options aren't yet in but an opportunity came my way that I couldn't refuse, so today I start a new part time position as a Community Food Animator with Foodshare! I'm excited to be working with community gardens and related projects all over the city and i'm sure I'll have lots of new stories to tell once I get settled in.

In the meantime here are a few books I've been enjoying recently:

The book that I've been reading one and off for the past few days is The Non Toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You. Written by Deana Duke who blogs at Crunchy Chicken, this book is definitely not light reading! In the same week in 2007, Deanna's son was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome and her husband became critically ill with multiple myeloma. Her reaction to this life altering news was to take a hard look at the life they'd been leading, a lifestyle which was a fairly healthy one by today's standards. Deana took things a step further and began examining the hidden toxins we are all exposed to on a daily basis; common chemicals that appear in our toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste, and in our household items such as the glasses we drink from, and the ones we wear on our faces. Using herself as a test subject, she went to great lengths to demonstrate that the levels of known environmental toxins we are exposed to are higher than we're led to believe. It's a pretty scary read and and it almost seems impossible to avoid exposure to many of these substances (cash register tapes contain BPA? Seriously?) And once you know all of this, how do you not go a little crazy trying to avoid it? (Deana herself, not surprisingly, titles one of the chapters Going a Little Bonkers). What she discovers and the choices she makes to deal with that knowledge makes for a compelling read!

Growing a Farmer is another book I picked up the library last week and it's a great read. There are an abundance of books out lately written by people who've given up their successful careers to become farmers but this one stands out if only because of the amount of detail devoted to each aspect of food he produces, from fruit to raw milk, to pork. In his former life Kurt Timmermeister was a chef so his transition to full time farmer/cheesemaker isn't as surprising as some but what is unusual is his stance on many commonly held beliefs of the local food movement. As I made my way through each chapter, I came across several instances of this; moments that made me wonder if I wanted to read anymore but his clear explanations of the options and why he made the choices he did made me respect him, even when I don't necessarily agree with him. Refreshing, informative and sometimes challenging, this is a wonderful book for anyone who's considering producing their own food on a larger scale.

It's a long time till next gardening season but if you need a fix, a good gardening book can be a godsend at this time of year. One of the books that I was given to preview is a titled Decoding Gardening Advice- the Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations and it's a perfect book to read before making plans for next year's garden. It's broken down into eight chapters,with topics ranging from Soil to Lawn Care; each chapter is further broken down into Good Advice, Advice That's Debatable and Advice That's Just Wrong. The information is clear and easy to read, yet very thorough. This is a great book for beginners and experts alike, and a handy reference for a variety of circumstances.

You don't need me to tell you what a great read Half Blood Blues is- it was a finalist for the Man Booker prize and recently won the 2011 Giller prize. But I'm going to tell you anyhow- go get this book. And read it while listening to Louis Armstrong (who makes a cameo in the story), with a kleenex box near by.

So many great books! Next time- How Carrots Won the Trojan War and Reclaiming our Food

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dark Days Challenge Week 1

I've been curious about the Dark Days Challenge for a number years but this is the first year I've signed up to participate. Started in 2007 by the folks at (Not So) Urban Hennery, the idea is simple: cook one meal each week featuring SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) ingredients, during the lean months of the year,and write about it on your blog. This year the challenge is being hosted by Not Dabbling In Normal and the post round ups are being split between the two blogs. It runs from the beginning of December until the end of March.

There are some basic guidelines to follow:

Local- Local is defined for this challenge as 150 mile radius. Now I'm not a stickler for rules in any case but this graphic that I stole from Joel and Dana at Well Preserved kinda demonstrates why that is a tad impractical and that's just a 100 mile radius! (If you are interested , they did a whole series of posts of how they define local for the Toronto area but be warned- there's geometry and other nerdy stuff going on here!)

For the purposes of this challenge I'm defining local as primarily Southwestern Ontario but in a pinch I'm okay with anywhere in Ontario (and for maple syrup only, I include Quebec- don't get me started on Ontario syrup).

Sustainable- this one's bit trickier to pin down. There's so much information (and misinformation) that it can be difficult to know what constitutes sustainable practises in food production. If I figure out why something is sustainable I'll post about about it in my recap.

Organic- I'm not a huge proponent of the organic labelling system so I tend to ignore it. The only time I pay attention is at the Sorauren market and only because I am speaking directly to the farmer/producers. I rarely buy organic unless it is reasonably priced or the only option.

Ethical- I'm going to assume this applies to meat, dairy and eggs and try to obtain these from sources I know to raise animals in an ethical manner.

Somethings I use frequently will not fall under any of the above: olive oil, sugar, sea salt and spices are the four most common but I will note any others as I use them.

I signed up for the challenge back in October and then promptly forgot about it, as I do frequently. So when I got my reminder email this week past week I was happy to see that I haven't missed any post deadlines. And I was even more delighted when I realized I inadvertently prepare a meal on Friday that fits the above criteria for the most part, so I didn't have to scramble to come up with anything before today (sometimes I am my own fairy godmother!) The only part I didn't manage to take care of was take any photos of the meal so a shot of the ingredients and some of previous meals will have to do for this round.

Back in Sept when local produce was cheap and plentiful we loaded up on potatoes and onions. I made a few batches of pierogies and froze them. The basic ingredients for them included local garlic, potatoes and onions, with goat cheddar from Monteforte in the filling, and Red Fife wheat flour, free range eggs and olive oil for the dough. On Friday I cooked a batch of them with local smoked bacon and more onions. The store where I purchased the bacon has an in-house butcher who cuts and prepares all of the meat they sell as well as sausages, bacon, and other charcuterie. I did not inquire where they source their meat however which I will try to ascertain on a future visit.

I also made beet roesti which I discovered during a different challenge last year. I grated local beets (the ones I still haven't gotten around to pickling) with the above flour, salt and chopped fresh rosemary from the plant that's overwintering inside for a fourth year. I fried these in store bought butter and served everything with homemade horseradish and sour cream produced by Western Creamery. Although I know little of where the milk is sourced, Western Creamy is family run creamery located in Brampton (about 30 minutes from Toronto) who use no additives, preservatives or stabilizers in their products. Once I connect with a recently discovered source for raw milk I hope to make my own butter and sour cream in place of the store bought.

All in all I think I did pretty well for my first attempt, especially since it was without any forethought or planning. It will be interesting to see if all the meals come together as easily!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Frugal Are You?

Canadian Doomer made a list on her blog of things she and her family do to live a frugal, low impact life on a limited budget- she calls it Radical Frugalism and I'm sure for many people some of her choices are pretty extreme. As the eldest of 13 siblings however, I grew up with a fairly frugal lifestyle myself and have maintained a lot of those habits in my adult life. I thought it would be interesting to compare our choices with hers to see how we are similar and where we differ. Farmgal did a similar list on her blog here. CD's comments are numbered below, my responses are in italics. I've shortened some of her comments ... for space reasons!

CD 1.We are cash-only by choice. ….

We both have multiple credit cards and don’t pay them off every month. It’s one of the biggest areas I’d like to improve on.

CD 2. We live in a (fairly) small space - about 875 square feet - in a "bad" part of town. The apartment has a galley eat-in kitchen, a narrow but long living room, a small bathroom, and two bedrooms, plus closets. We are NOT cramped - although book and food storage becomes interesting at times - and utilities are included in our quite low rent.

We live in a similar sized apt in an okay neighbourhood with great transit access. NO closets! We rent out the second bedroom and currently have a friend staying in the livingroom who also contributes to the costs. Our portion of the rent is currently well below average rent for our area. We pay hydro in addition to rent, every 2nd month- the bills are usually below $100 for 2 months. We are on Smart meters and try to only run high usage items during off peak hours.

CD 3. We drink tap water.
When we drink water which is rarely it’s from the tap.

CD 4. We have one car.Since gas hit over $1.12/litre, we drive as little as possible. Unfortunately, we're finding that this city is spread out in a very inconvenient way.
No car. We both had bikes but mine was stolen this summer and I haven’t replaced it yet. We walk a lot and take transit if necessary. We spend about $50/m on transit. We can get almost everything we need in our neighbourhood but need transit to get to work.

CD 5. I cook from scratch.
Yep, pretty much everything. No pressure canner tho so I freeze a lot. And hot waterbath can of course.

CD 6. My husband carries a packed lunch every day. ...
No lunches- we both get fed on the job for the most part.

CD 7. We don't have air conditioning in the apartment or in the car. ….
Nope. One ceiling fan in our bedroom.

CD 8. We use a slow cooker ....Slow cooker broke and we did not replace it.
We own a slow cooker which I got with a gift certificate last Christmas. I don’t use it much- I prefer the oven (we have a gas stove and don’t pay for gas.)

CD 8. We do not buy "single use" items. I include not only disposable products like paper towel, but items like a popcorn popper, or a 'Smore maker.
We own a hot air popper which I got at a yardsale for a quarter. I love it.

CD 9. We have been using Family Cloth since December 2010.
I live with 3 men who can’t even remember to change the toilet paper roll when it’s empty. Not a chance.

CD 10. I dumpster dive if I see something worth taking. ....
We used to but being hit with bedbugs twice in 3 years has pretty much curtailed that. Toronto is epidemic with them.

CD 11. This spring, we are going to join a Community Garden. I'm feeling quite excitedout that. The waiting list for these is LONG! We tried, and failed, to get one started at our church.
We have a garden in the backyard, and grow in pots on the deck. I get tons of fresh fruit from volunteering with Not Far From the Tree. I also forage on my own which is surprisingly easy in the city!

CD 12. We've been quite radical with eliminating things in the house that we don't use. Less stuff equals more room for food storage...
Us too!

CD 13 We have fairly streamlined wardrobes and don't change with the seasons. If we do really need something (usually just for the kids), we shop at Value Village. I am considering having a Mennonite lady sew me some basic, durable everyday dresses and matching aprons.
I have summer and winter clothes which I switch out. The non seasonal stuff fits in one suitcase, store in a trunk. We shop second hand for everything but shoes and underwear.We both have too many shoes.

CD 14. The kids have minimal toys and maximum books. The toys that they do have are usually classic items - Lego, wooden train and car sets, a few favorite stuffed toys.
No kids but the book collection is huge

CD 15. We buy almost everything in bulk. And we're not shy about asking about further discounts for dented boxes, about-to-expire meat, etc.
We’re just two (roommates buy their own groceries) and have extremely limited storage so buying in bulk doesn’t really make sense for most items. I buy a lot of discounted stuff tho. Dollar baskets of produce are big in our neighbourhood.

CD 16. We love, love, love Freecycle. …
Just joined recently and have yet to take advantage. We use Craigslist a lot!

CD 17. I use Swagbucks as my search engine. I should be earning money for my searches, not Yahoo.
Tried it but don’t find it useful enough. I do tons of online surveys for $ and points. I also collect points for anything I can sign up for and then swap them for points I can actually use. On my trip to England this summer we used points to pay for 6 nights of hotels including 3 nights in prime London. I also used points to fly to Minneapolis to see my best friend - twice!

CD 18. We do not buy cold cereal. Ever.
Ew- why would you?

CD 19. We do not have cable. Actually, we don't even receive the public stations.
We have cable but don’t pay for it. And we download pretty much everything anyhow

CD 20. We don't have cell phones, and our phone/long-distance/internet is bundled, costing us less than $75 $100/month.
We both have cells-we need them for work. Mine is pay-as-you-go and cost me $20/m, his plan is $25. Landline/ld/internet is currently $60 for 100 G highspeed, unlimited calling to North America.

CD 21. We have no personal debt.
See # 1

CD 22. We have a practical gifts rule, and no surprise gifts except for kids. We're not wealthy enough for "Oh, gee, you shouldn't have. Christmas is for church and good food, not gifts.
We don’t have any rules per say but both prefer practical gifts anyhow. The Russian didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas so for him New Years is the day to exchange gifts which means we get to take advantage of Boxing day sales!

CD 23. We are selective about who we give gifts to outside of the immediate family. Most people Everyone will receive something that has been creatively upcycled, carefully re-gifted, or hand-made. Okay, for "selective", read "Nothing" this year.
We buy for parents, 15 nieces and nephews (mine), one daughter (his) and each other. That’s plenty! The nieces and nephews always get books- sometimes new, sometimes secondhand.

CD 24. We rarely practically never eat out - when we do, we recognize that we're paying extra for someone else to shop, cook and clean. The food isn't any better than, and often it's not nearly as good as, what I make at home. We don't go out for coffee, nor do we go out and drink. Okay, we really don't drink. But if we did, we'd have a drink at home.
We eat out about once a week, usually inexpensive places. We also do a potluck style dinner once a week with friends -we all bring ingredients and someone, usually one of our chef friends cook a gourmet meal. The Russian drinks regularly, me not so much but we have a local where we go to socialize a lot. We can walk there.

CD 25. I save the whey from making Farmer's Cheese and use it as the liquid in my sourdough bread.
I don't make cheese but I save bones and veggie scraps, also the water used to cook veggies for stock. What little waste we have goes in the compost or in the worm bin and ends up in the garden.

CD 26. Oh, yes, I make Farmer's Cheese from goat's milk instead of incredibly expensive chevre. I did say I cook from scratch, right? I mean it.
Still don’t make cheese at home. But I did just locate a way to get my hands on raw milk so butter, crème fraise and hopefully cheese soon!

CD 27. We eat a lot of soup. And stew.
Loads. It’s borsht week!

CD 28. We don't eat a lot of meat. We LIKE meat. Okay, we love meat. And if we had our own farm where we could raise chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs, we'd be eating like decadent carnivorous kings. Right now, though, meat is expensive.
I shop around for specials, use a lot of cheaper cuts and buy last day of sale stuff at the grocery store. I wish I could say it’s all local and ethically raised but not on our budget and the Russian is a big meat eater.

CD 29. Sometime in the new year, we're buying a side of pork. ...
I’d love to do this but we haven’t the freezer space nor pressure canner.

CD 30. We buy farm fresh eggs directly from a local farmer, at a better price than I can get at the grocery store.
Just located a source for eggs!

CD 31. We buy "seconds" whenever possible - blemished or oddly shaped produce that does not sell to more picky consumers. And we happily gather windfall apples when given the chance.
All of the above!

CD 32. Because I put up food in jars, I can portion meals well in order to minimize waste.
I do the same with stuff I freeze.

CD 33. We make coffee at home and take it in travel mugs.
I never touch the stuff and the Russian makes a small bodem for himself in the morning. None leaves the house.

CD 34. We don't use napkins - cloth or paper. After a meal, people with messy faces go to the bathroom and wash, unless they're too little. In that case, they have their faces and hands washed.
Cloth napkins all the way! Also handkerchiefs!

CD 35. In addition, no paper towels, kleenex, paper lunch bags, disposable grocery bags, swiffers, disposable baby wipes.
None here either. The odd paper bag that makes it in gets used for mushroom storage and then shredded for the wormbin.

CD 36. Most of my dishtowels have become rags and I'm still using them. Do they really have to look pretty in order to wash my dishes?
Dishtowels become rags but aren’t used for dishes then. I buy new ones about every two years.

CD 37. Cleaning products - dish soap (bought in bulk), vinegar, baking soda, bleach, borax, Ivory soap. Oh, and we have two bottles of drain opener - a necessity around here.
All of the above and occasionally I splurge on Mrs. Meyers all purpose cleaner- the essential oils scents are amazing!

CD 38. Oh, yea, among those appliances we don't have - a dishwasher. Not that we could fit one in this apartment.
Us neither. We do own an apt size washer and dryer which I bought 20 years ago. We never use the dryer- everything gets line dried year round.

CD 39. We don't ever, ever, ever buy bottled water. Ever. We have metal water bottles that we fill and take in the summer.
Nope. I fill my metal bottles with juice.

CD 40. I do not use cosmetics. We use Ivory soap (until I learn to make lye soap), shampoo and conditioner bought in bulk, toothpaste and mouthwash. Mr. D uses deodorant because he needs it.
We use whatever soap is available- I prefer natural ingredient stuff but don’t always buy it. I cannot stand fluoride toothpaste so spend money on the expensive natural stuff. I rarely use cosmetics but I do own some. I also use fairly pricey shampoo, conditioner and I colour my hair at home. (I’m vain about my hair). I also pay for regular pedicures- best $20 I spend a month. The Russian has bodywash and antiperspirant- he’s a dancer and can’t afford to sweat in the costumes.

CD 41. Homeschooling –
N/A, unless you count the Russian. He could use some English lessons.

CD 42. Oh, yes - need I mention that we happily, happily, happily take second-hand things? What we don't need, we pass along.
Absolutely. I've never purchased a single piece of furniture in my life.

CD 43. My "houseplants" - a sweet potato that I hope to keep alive all winter and a baby False Sea Onion/Pregnant Onion (works like aloe vera).
I have many, many plants. All of them I either started myself (lemon trees, avocado), sprouted from someone else or rescued from near death.

CD 43. We are very picky about what we buy. We frequently ask "Do we need this? Really need it?" Then we go away and ask ourselves that for a week. If the answer is still yes, and we could find no substitution, we buy it. We have decided on our family's goals and values, and we analyze everything to see if it furthers those goals.
I'm the same, the Russian is a bit more of a spendthrift but mainly with clothes. I've been slowly replacing all our plastic kitchen stuff with metal or glass but just with what I can find second hand. Most things we want, we try to make ourselves, except electronics but the Russian is really good at repairing things like that.

Overall I think we are very simlar to you - you have some things that are necessities because of children or where you live; we are a bit more lax with our "luxuries". It's great to see it all laid out this!

Anyone got any other frugal suggestions? Anything you refuse to be frugal about?