Friday, April 29, 2011

Signs of the Apocalypse?

Ok, so that title is really just tongue-in-cheek. So many environmental reports seem to only say, "Doom! DOOM!" and that just makes people feel hopeless. I do think that individual actions have a bigger impact that most people give credit for. (If I didn't feel that way, why on earth would I have set this challenge for myself?)
That being said, here in the near-arctic (the arctic circle is about 120 miles north of Fairbanks) we are seeing some of the first signs of global climate change. Not in big, dramatic ways for the most part. But still noticeable. Permafrost is melting, causing huge building and construction headaches. Not to mention crazy pictures of wonky forests. But you know what I see? Spiders. Our climate is too cold for too much of the year for many spiders to be able to withstand it. The ones we do have are tiny--as in, small enough that even I am not scared of them most of the time. But yesterday I opened up the door to let the pets out and saw a half-dollar sized spider of a species I've never seen around here before. I called Shane over (mostly in a "Make it go away! Ewww! Shane! Get it out of here!" kind of way) and he'd never seen one like it, either. I bet if we asked an arachnologist, they would say that the species isn't native and that it's only appeared in the last decade or so. Now, I'm of two minds. I really, really hate spiders and love that there aren't too many around here. (A lot of the ones that are here in the summertime have come up on shipping trucks from the lower 48.) On the other hand, we have enormous mosquitoes. The kind that make southern tourists blink and say, "Wow. I thought ours were bad!" So anything that will destroy the mosquito population is a good thing. But the fact that this means our climate has warmed up so much? Very bad. I'd much rather deal with the mosquitoes than the effects of climate change.
Speaking of mosquitoes, now that most of the snow has melted they're out in force. Time to haul out my mosquito slaying techniques once again. This mostly involves eating a lot of garlic, since they don't like the taste and will stay away from you. Also, when they do buzz around I will wait for one to land and then crush it dead. Tried and true techniques.
I found out yesterday that the main road near my apartment is going to be shut down for part of the summer. Even more impetus to ride my bike as often as possible, since driving out of my neighborhood will be a hassle. I even checked to see how far away some of my activities and friends' houses are. It was really just reassurance that it won't take too long and I won't be too tired when I get wherever I'm going, since I already know the best routes. Btw, when you use Google directions there are icons on the side for driving, mass transit, biking and walking so that it will map out the best routes for you. Since Alaska tends to be one of the last places to get stuff like that I know that if we have it, your town probably does too. (Seriously, my dad is still amazed that we get mail in under six weeks now. When they moved our family in 1989, that's about how long it took the average package to work its way up from the lower 48.)
I'm constantly dismayed by how little there is about living sustainably in Alaska, though. A few news articles here and there about people trying to heat homes using mostly solar or sustainable fishing practices and that's about it. In some ways, I feel like I'm doing this on my own, even though I know there are plenty of people here who live on budgets, eat locally, buy locally, or are subsistence hunters/farmers. There just isn't much to read about how to go about doing this here. If someone did write a manual about local eating for Alaskans, it would probably just say this: "It's not possible. Leave the state." Sigh.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cleanup day

There's a specific cleanup day every year in Fairbanks for getting rid of all of the trash that emerges from the snow. This year, it's on May 7th. Everyone who cleans up is a volunteer and it provides not only a good, but I would argue a necessary, service to our community. The News-Miner article says that, so far, over 1500 people have signed up. Go Fairbanks!
However, the irony of a corporation providing snacks (which will most likely be individually packaged) and bottled drinks out to the volunteers is not lost on me. Do the organizers really not see that, by distributing these snacks and water bottles, they are contributing to the area's growing garbage problem? I guess not. I hope that at least some of the volunteers bring their own reusable water bottles, and that the rest recycle them at the newly expanded recycling center.
It was beautiful weather for biking this morning, but it's looking more and more like it might end up being a rainy afternoon. Rain in the face kind of kills the joy of my downhill afternoon ride. A little bit, at least.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April Showers

Most of the snow is now gone. Unfortunately, we're now getting rain. And hail. But that means it's warm enough to rain, not snow, so I'm not going to complain.
I started riding my bike to work this morning. I really wasn't going to start it this soon--mostly because I'm lazy. The thought of riding up the hill to my office first thing in the morning makes me want to whine, but it's never as bad as I think it will be. Plus, I got to sleep in about 5-10 minutes today, which helps.
And I'm loving that I can walk or bike home from something after 10 at night and it's still light out. I took the dog for a short walk before bed last night and it was dusky but not dark. The street lights were on, but it was mostly a courtesy. They'll shut off entirely in a few weeks. Summer around here is amazing, with the constant daylight. Of course, it can be tricky because then you never know what time of day it is. You can wake up absolutely certain you've slept in and it turns out to be 3 a.m. (Same thing in winter with the constant darkness. I've noticed that I tend to wake up a lot more in the middle of the night during the light extremes because my internal clock has no outside signals to go on.)
I had asked Shane to make dinner yesterday, but came home and there was no dinner ready. I had somewhere to be in the evening and didn't have much time (and what I'd planned--baked chicken--would have taken far too long). So I made carrot soup, with only a couple of minor changes. For one, I don't keep cream on hand so I put in a splash of milk instead. I also added garlic (my second favorite go-to spice) and tossed in some spinach when I was blending it (mostly just to use it up before it went bad, since it didn't change the taste of the soup at all). I also think that this soup could be taken in another direction with ginger instead of coriander and that would be really good. I think I'll try that next time I make it. I love soups like this for one huge reason besides just taste: they are comically easy. The chopping is the work of a moment since it doesn't need to be really uniform, or at all pretty, since you're just going to blend it up anyway. And the rest of it is done by simply being cooked. A wonderful meal with basically no effort. Served with homemade bread, it's probably the best thing ever for a rainy breakup day.
I also culled some of my peppermint. Over the winter, I thought this plant was going to die. I kept waiting and waiting for that inevitable moment and it never came. As soon as it started getting lighter outside, this plant took off until it basically took over that corner of the dining room. (Every plant person has their own Triffid and this peppermint plant seems to be mine.) To keep it from choking out my other plants I cut it back and am now drying it. It'll make me happy next winter to get to come home to yummy peppermint tea. Or a tisane I make when I'm sick of hot water, peppermint, honey, and a dash of lemon juice.
My other project for this week was starting a sourdough starter. I think I'm going to need to throw that out, though, and get a different bottle for it. It's moldy. Not good. I have friends that I could get starter from, so maybe I'll just ask them instead? It's not that sourdough starter is difficult to make, I just need to get a proper jar for it. The one I have doesn't have a great lid, so I think that's how the mold got in. But if you want to know, sourdough is this:
1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour. Stir in container of choice (either glass or ceramic, and be sure it has a good lid) and leave on the counter in a warm-ish place. Every day (and I do mean every day) for two weeks, pour out 1 cup of the mix and add another 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water, stirring it in. When you're ready to use the starter (anytime after two weeks should be fine), for a couple of days beforehand skip the part where you dump some out and just add the water and flour until it's doubled. Then when you take some out for the bread, you still have starter for next time. This is how people have starters that are "over 100 years old". The ingredients in the starter aren't really that old, but it essentially is the same starter. When you don't want the yeasts growing, put it in the fridge and they'll go into a sort of hibernation. And the longer it's left out on the counter, the sourer it will be.
According to "The Urban Homestead", sourdough starter is best done with white flour, but after the first couple of weeks you can start mixing in wheat or rye flour until it's fully "gone over".
Last summer I spent waaaay too much money at the farmer's market for wheat sourdough bread. It'll be nice that I can make my own this year.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tank top weather!

It got up to 55 this weekend, and you're going to laugh, but it was tank top weather around here. (I did see several people wearing hats and coats, and my boss still wears her parka, but for most of us, t-shirts, shorts, and sandals are going to quickly become the norm.) It makes me happy, thinking that planting time is coming up soon. Shane keeps making pointed remarks about getting the dining table back from my plants.
I bought a couple more plants this past weekend, too. Chives and cilantro. They apparently do quite well in pots, even if they're kept indoors, so I'm hopeful that I can keep them through next winter. If not, at least I'll have them for the summer and I have lots of things I'm planning to make with them. This week, carrot and cilantro (also called coriander) soup. I'm not gonna lie, I'm pretty excited.
This past weekend, I also got some totes to use as planter boxes for some of the squashes, and I'm trying to figure out what would be best in the garden. Also, can I get ahold of some old tires this year to hill my potatoes in? That would be fantastic. I've been reading a lot about gardening to try to increase my skills. My current book is "The Urban Homestead" by Coyne. It talks a lot about how to plant intensively for small spaces. I think it's even convinced me to try my hand at lettuce this summer. Maybe. (We don't actually eat too much salad, preferring to get our veggies as part of a meal rather than as a side. And I put lettuce on my sandwiches, but since we mostly have leftovers for lunch I don't end up eating too many sandwiches. It's sad, really.)
I finally used the last of our frozen rhubarb yesterday. It all went into one strawberry and rhubarb pie (frozen strawberries, of course) and a crystallized ginger and rhubarb crisp. (I just put in enough rhubarb to make up for the fact that I didn't have any apples.) The pie was good, but the crisp was excellent. I'm super excited to get ahold of several rhubarb plants this summer so that I can keep making it. So good! I might ask Shane's mom if she can bring up some of her frozen rhubarb when they're here in a few weeks so that I can make it again. In her own garden, she wanted one rhubarb plant. It turned into 4 enormous plants which she cuts back weekly in the summers. I don't feel bad asking for some of her supply. In fact, she could probably bring some fresh by then!
I ended up taking a sick day last Friday, because my throat was sore and my stomach hurt. (Not food poisoning, I didn't get sick. It just hurt. A lot.) Shane always laughs at me because when I have to stay home for any reason, I end up getting really restless. He went out in the morning and came home to find me cleaning of the blinds with an old sock over my hand. (Good thing I cleaned them, too. They were nasty!) I also rearranged the storage space, so now we can actually get to the things we need or will soon need. It was quite nice. I pulled out the planter boxes I've had for several years and put them on the porch. The dog laid down next to them and started sunning herself. She had the right idea. With not much left to do now while I'm waiting for the

weather to fully transition to summer, I need to just sit back and enjoy the sun.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Stupid, stupid designs

For a while now, Shane and I have talked about buying a house. Of course, this is really just a dream right now. (Update: he got a job! But it's on-call, and might not even end up being part-time. We'll see, though.) Still, dreaming, I look on Craigslist every once in a while to see what's out there. And I'm constantly struck by the stupid designs that I see. By this, I don't mean that the architect designed the interior of the home poorly, rather that the placement seems poor. This is true for our apartment, too.
In Fairbanks, with our super cold winters, nice double- or triple-paned windows will, at best, even out on the heat loss or gain. If they're south-facing that is. North facing? You're losing tons and tons of heat. And yet, so few houses around here are oriented to the south. Or in any way built to maximize the window usage for lighting and/or heat. Take our apartment: The biggest windows (other than the sliding glass door) are all on the north side. Our kitchen, which is on the south side, has no window in it. Even in the middle of summer, when it's always light, to do anything in the kitchen we have to turn on a light. It drives me crazy. With a little more thought and planning into how light, windows, and walls are used, this house could have been pretty efficient. As it is, I'm certain the landlord loses a lot in paying for the heat during the winter, and our electric bills are through the roof. ($100+/month in the wintertime is the norm. Constant darkness + really high cost of electricity = way too much money spent on lights.)
It also leaves me with very few options for my plants. They're all gathered in our little dining room (I did mention that the squashes are on the dining table) because that's the only place where they'll get enough light to survive. Even then, there's a wall that blocks out the morning sun, so they're only getting about half of what they otherwise would. Our bedroom has the only other south facing windows and I've toyed with the idea of putting a plant or two in there, but I'm not sure where they would go. It's a very tiny bedroom and super cramped as it is. The ceiling is tiled and wouldn't be able to support a hanging plant. So, for now, our dining room tends to look like a jungle in the summer.
The only real upside to all of this is that, when we do buy a house, I know exactly what to look for and what to avoid. Because it would drive me nuts to live in a house that's as poorly designed as our apartment is.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Just one of those days

My boss sent a wave of procedural destruction through the office that led to angry, curse filled interdepartmental IMs. How was your Thursday?
It was much more pleasant today to think about the potential of one day, maybe, planting my squashes and getting my kitchen table back. I mean, it beats work. And since I work in a library, I discovered that there are 2 books from my to-read list that are not only at the library, they're online! I checked one of them out today, and I'm already enjoying it.
I think I'll need to talk with the others in my house about this project a bit more, though. They went grocery shopping today for just three things (already putting us slightly over budget--although we're feeding 3 people until mid-May, so I don't feel as bad about that as I should) and came home with lots and lots of things. *Sigh* Included among them: mangoes (which must be coming from South America at this time of year), bananas (!) and apples. (To be fair, the Boy bought the apples and bananas himself, and he's not really constrained by any of my challenge. So I just won't eat them.) I had asked Shane to pick up some penne pasta for dinner tonight and what did he do? Got all kinds of different pastas. Not realizing that we already had three boxes of lasagna noodles, he bought three more! So we're having lasagna sometime in the next couple of weeks. Maybe several somtimes.
Lesson learned. I do most of the food shopping for us anyway, but I think I'll have to be more careful about planning and preparing in advance so that I'll really be the only one (at least for me and Shane--Drew needs to start buying his own food, grumble, grumble, grumble...) and we'll stick to our budget and my principles better.
The only complaint I've really heard from Shane, though, was about carrots. When he pulled them out to cook with the other night he called me into the kitchen, flopping a carrot around. "Look at this! This is not good! It's not a good carrot! It's obviously been in someone's root cellar all winter. I feel I have a right to complain if my quality is going to go down." I asked (reasonably, I feel) what it really matters since it was going to get cooked up anyway? He couldn't really answer that one.
Anyway, tonight's meal was actually more like an idea of a meal. I think of it as Pasta With Stuff. The 'stuff' can be absolutely any green vegetable you want. (I think green works best because it's more present than, say, carrots or red peppers.) I used the last of our asparagus (please, please let there be more at the market this weekend!) and it was super easy.
To make:
Penne pasta
Garlic (the more, the better--three cloves turned out to be not enough)
And that's it. Cook the pasta, and all the other stuff except the cheese in another skillet, then combine and mix in the parmesan. Really good and really fast. I had the veggies waiting for the noodles to finish cooking.
Also, a little note: I love basil. Love, love, love it. For Christmas, my best friend gave me a basil-scented candle. Her sister made fun of her ("A candle? That's what you give to someone you work with!") but she knew I'd love it. Basil is probably my favorite herb, and it's so versatile! So be prepared, when I do put recipes on here, to see lots of basil.
The dog is staring at me and I have absolutely no idea why. Does she disapprove of me getting seconds?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's a tough life for a pet

So, here's what I think my cat has been saying to me lately:
"Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom I want to go outside. Mom, let me go outside. Please, please, please?" I let cat outside. "Yay! I'm outside! I'm...wait. I'm outside. This is not the glorious outsideness that I wanted. Mom, let me in. Please, please, let me in. Mom!" I let cat inside. "Oh, well, now I'm inside and...and it's the same as it was before. Um, can I try outside again? Mom? Mom? Prrretty please? Mom? Outside?"
Thanks to a video that Drew showed us a while ago, we determined that our cat must be part Russian Blue. He's the same beautiful steely gray (with a white belly, paws, and one adorable white mark on his upper lip, so he can't be pure), he has the same smiling, regal face, and the smarts. But he's mixed with something else. Something loud. Because he's always chatting, scolding, and questioning. He can't seem to rub affectionately unless he's also saying something to me, and only stops chatting when he's purring.
He also very sweetly and lovingly throws a wrench into most of my plans to reduce pet waste. The dog will eat anything set before her (and a lot of things you think are out of the way, like butter on the table or my lunch on the counter) but especially loves the "treats" we giver her: salmon skins and leftovers, pork fat trimmed from our chops, a little bit of moose here and there, etc. The cat HATES all of that. I try to give him salmon and he sniffs it, then shakes his head as if to remove the smell from his nose. Cooked, raw, it doesn't matter. He wants his kibbles, he wants his canned food, and that's it.
I've tried any number of different cat litters for him, but he wants the processed clay litter and nothing else. He hated both the wood chip litter and the old newspaper litter because they didn't clump and he's too fastidious to appreciate anything less. Even if the box gets cleaned out every day, he knows it was there, and it didn't clump and he won't have anything to do with it. (We can always tell he's unhappy with his litter box because he pees in the bathtub. I don't know why, since that's also his preferred source of drinking water, but I won't complain since it's super easy to clean up.) So I end up buying what is essentially the junk food of pet products--kibble, litter with I-don't-know-what mixed in it, and canned food. These things produce a lot of garbage, and aren't good for him. (If you think pet food is good, read the book "Pet Food Nation" and it'll make you think long and hard about what you give your animals. I've certainly limited their kibbles now, although I haven't quite gotten up the will to cook all of their food myself.)
One of the defining characteristics of the Russian Blue, even more than other cat breeds, is that they don't like their home environment to change. It takes him a few days to adjust to anything new or different that we might bring into the house. (And may God help us when we start getting rid of our crappy furniture. Or move.) So I'm sure that part of it, for the litter at least, is a resistance to change. We didn't start him on the more environmentally friendly litter from the beginning, so he doesn't like that it's new and strange. He will accept it if we mix it in with the crappy stuff, but I'm not sure if he'll ever let us switch to it entirely.
So the point of all of this is, if anyone has any suggestions about how to deal with a difficult cat, I'd love to hear them. This is the first cat I've ever been privileged to have, so I'm in new territory. It's easy enough to reduce the dog's minimal amount of waste. As it stands, the cat is one of the biggest garbage producers in the house! Between kibble bags, cans, litter and the bags we use to clean out the box, he's quite a messy kitty.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Putting my house in order

About a month ago, Shane and I started doing a workout program. (Insanity, if you must know.) A few days into it, I whined, "But I don't wanna! I'm sore!" Shane answered over his shoulder, "You have a wedding to get ready for." I just stared at him, open-mouthed, in shock for a moment. (Was he seriously trying to say that I needed to lose weight for our wedding?!) When he saw my expression he quickly added, "I do too! I just mean, you know, motivation...." Ah. Well, in some ways he's right. When I'm working out and I just don't want to keep going, my engagement ring will often catch my eye. But what I'm thinking about when I see it is not my wedding (although now that I have my dress, that does enter my thoughts!) so much as it is my marriage. I want to start our life together from a good place, and being fit is part of that. In one of the weddings we went to last summer, the officiant pointed out that, when you're married, you're not taking care of yourself just for yourself anymore. You're doing it for the other person as well, so that they don't have to worry about you, so they're not burdened with taking care of you, and so that they can look forward to a long and healthy life with you. That really struck me.
I think that's one of the main reasons I'm challenging myself this way. For one thing, it's simply healthier to eat good, local foods. We do eat far, far more vegetables when they're local because they actually taste good. And they certainly have more nutrients (they haven't lost most of them during shipping) and we're not consuming all of the pesticides on so-called "conventional" produce. (A term I hate--it's only been the convention for the last 60 years or so to spray them down with chemicals. For the first 60,000 years of agriculture, natural methods of pest and weed control were the norm.)
It's also better for the family we want to have one day. Not only are we making ourselves healthier before having kids, but we're setting ourselves up for a lifetime of good habits. After all, if we can't prioritize health and fitness now, while we're young and relatively unencumbered, how will we ever manage it when we do have kids? And what kind of example would that be setting for them? The old "do as I say and not as I do" doesn't actually work. Kids are smart, but they need to have good examples to follow. (Some of this also applies to the dog and her health--if I don't take her for a walk/run, who will? And if I don't, what impact does that lost walk have on her health? When she--gulp--dies, I don't want to be left regretting all the walks I didn't take with her.)
By budgeting ourselves like this, I'm also ensuring that we're starting our marriage from a solid financial base. We're both savers, so that's not our problem. (Our one splurge does tend to be good food!) But it is tough while Shane's out of work and commodities like food and gas ($4.13 at the moment) are so expensive. I just want to give us that extra little push to make sure we don't run up the debt that so many people have. How can you truly live a full, happy life with huge debt hanging over your head? And I always end up wondering, what on earth do these people spend all that money on?
We've been through poorer than this, so we know how to scrimp. I know money trouble can be something that puts a major strain on relationships, but this right now isn't the worst for us. When we lived in our dry cabin, we were living on 2 part-time student salaries (minimum wage). We were able to joke that our theme song was Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer". It can be tough on your relationship when you have to run out to the outhouse at -50 (especially when your partner can just pee off the porch), or when there's a pile of dishes that neither of you wants to wash by hand, but for the most part we didn't let it get to us. We joked about how in the future, we'd look back on that time as rather idyllic. (And we do miss parts of it--just not the dishes. We love our dishwasher!)
This new philosophy of mine is also a matter of what will make us happy in the long run. When we first got engaged, I poured through all the wedding magazines. But I gave them up after about 2 months because I realized that it's really just a big sham to make us buy more stuff. Is our marriage going to be any more solid just because we bought a monogrammed silver cake server for our wedding day? No. Most definitely it will not. It wouldn't even add to the enjoyment of the big day itself because, who cares about the cake server? (I'll be too focused on the cake!) The same goes for most of the ideas in those magazines. (When "budget" hotels for your honeymoon are $300/night....) I've been looking around our house with the same eye, now. If we don't use it, if it doesn't bring some measure of joy to our house, it's gone. I'll either donate it to the Rescue Mission or to the thrift store. We don't need to be uber-consumers to have a life filled with joy, and I'm finding that we're much happier when we have less junk and clutter keeping us from the things we really do enjoy.
I'd rather focus on the things that truly matter, and how much stuff we own is not one of them. Where our food is coming from and how it impacts our health? To me, that is worth my time as much as exercising is. I think I'll go take the dog for a walk. :)

P.S. We start month 2 of Insanity tomorrow (in other words, brutal hour-long workouts), and we're not looking forward to it. Oh, the hurt!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Green idea of the day

We go through a lot of milk in our house. I mean, a lot. 3-4 gallons for the three of us. (A little less now that we're not making hot chocolate every time we come in out of the cold. ;) But it always comes in plastic jugs around here. (To buy the paper half gallons would be roughly twice as expensive.) And I hate knowing that we're contributing so much waste through a single-use plastic container like that! So, I wrote to one of the local dairies, the Matanuska Creamery. I explained that I think they would benefit from a sort of dairy CSA, and why I think this.
First of all, a lot of the breweries in the state have growlers, glass jugs that the customer pays for once and can refill as desired. Obviously it wouldn't work quite so well to have the customer make a trip to the dairy every time they want milk, but I think the same principle can be applied. Have the dairy customers pay a small fee for the glass growlers, and then have a set order in every week that can be picked up at a set location (like HG Market), and the old growlers can be returned at the same time.
The dairy benefits because the customer would be completely loyal to their milk (why buy milk at the store, unless you absolutely have to, when you know you have better quality, local milk on a regular basis?) and through lower costs. I can't imagine it's cheap for them to go through all of those plastic jugs. Even if the glass ones cost more up-front, not only do you have the customer paying that fee but you then reduce the costs of operating the dairy. I think this would also bring the price of local milk down to make it more competitive with Outside milk. (As it stands, grocery stores take a loss here on milk shipped in from out of state because, essentially, they can. They make enough money from everything else in the store that they can take a hit on the shipping and storing costs of milk. Local dairies and businesses can't. Rather insidious, isn't it?)
The benefit to the customer would be lower costs, more regular supply (sometimes difficult around here--it either gets bought out to quickly or something like road closures prevents delivery), and of course less waste.
And for a pickup/dropoff point, HG Market and businesses like it would work very well. They would benefit from the increased exposure to their business and the increased traffic to their store.
What's better than a win-win-win? I'll let you know what they say when I get a response.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"It's been a long day and I'm tired, so I'm going home."

How did the day pass so quickly?
Shane and I realized that we had to go to the store for a couple of (non-food) items, so we biked to Fred Meyers. While we were there, I decided to pick up some Greek yogurt. I love yogurt, but there are no local producers. One of my friends has a recipe for how to make it in a crock pot (it does require a small amount of store-bought to start it, but makes a huge batch--would certainly cut down on my garbage) but we don't yet have a crock pot. (Does every couple count on their wedding registry as much as we are?) As soon as we get one, I'm going to start making my own yogurt. Because I eat way, way too much of it.
This time of year is funny. You'll never hear a local calling it spring, because it isn't. Spring is what happens in about a week, from the first touch of green on trees to full-blown leaf cover. (You think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. It's literally about a week.) This season is breakup. The snow is melting, slowly, and there are suddenly lakes everywhere, and rivers on the roads that are practically big enough for spawning salmon to swim up. It makes biking interesting, to say the least, since there are also big patches of ice and slush in the shade. This is the time of year when ski bums still have the skis in their vehicles, but you can also see boys playing football or throwing baseballs on any available stretch of brown grass. In the afternoons, it's not uncommon for people to be wearing t-shirts, even though it's about 40 degrees. Coming out of winter, that seems warm around here. Especially when the sun is shining.
The promise of summer is everywhere, and it's tantalizing. It's a conscious effort to remind myself that it's not here yet. The nights and mornings are still below freezing, which helps. It's really no surprise to me that this time of year tends to be harder on people than the winter. In the cold and dark months, you hunker down and endure because what else can you do? This tease of what's coming but isn't here yet, when you're so, so ready for it is worse than any of the cold.
This is also the only ugly season in Fairbanks. Not only is dirty, melting snow completely aesthetically unappealing, it reveals all the garbage that people have thrown into it over the winter. There is garbage everywhere. I don't think it's a coincidence that I started my personal campaign against waste during breakup because I'm shown daily exactly what I think is wrong with our current system. Why I think it's imperative for all of us to reduce the amount we discard. How can we not see that it affects all of us, and our home (Earth)?
It just makes me angry.
Moose roast for dinner tonight. So good! With potatoes, carrots and onions on the side. Mmmm. We also had people over for dinner, and I have a favor to ask. If you pray, please pray for our friends James and Lucy. They just found out that Baby-on-the-way has what's called Snowman heart. They have to go to Anchorage next week to see a specialist, and probably Baby will have to be taken for heart surgery as soon as she's born (in Anchorage, via C-section). They're staying upbeat ("At least we have insurance...") and both sets of grandparents have told them not to worry about the cost, but it's worrying. So please pray for them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lazy Saturday

So, I did something last night that I swore to you I wouldn't do. I made up my own recipe. For a little background, the last time I tried this, Shane took two bites before saying, "I'm making my own dinner." And I really couldn't blame him. It was pretty bad. Not awful, just not tasty. But it was my turn to cook last night, and we didn't have the ingredients for any of my recipes. So I decided to try it again. Here's what I came up with:
Boullion or chicken stock (to cook the couscous in)
Green onions
Dash of Allspice
I can't give you exact amounts, because I didn't use any measuring. About 2-3 halves of chicken breast, all the couscous we had left, 4 carrots, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 bunch of green onions, and basil and allspice to taste. (Not a lot of allspice--a little goes a long way.) This made enough for me and Shane to each have two bowls and Drew (who claims that couscous is "weird") had one. I liked it, but I was so nervous that Shane wouldn't. I asked him about eight times if he was sure he liked it, until he got his second bowl and I relaxed. He'd finish what he had to make me feel better, but he wouldn't take seconds if he didn't really like it.
With my focus on local, I have to talk about one of my favorite local bands. We saw them at the Pub last night. Steve Brown and the Bailers are AWESOME. Especially in a crowded Pub, dancing with your sweetie. Anyway, I really wanted to get some of their music but I hate buying CDs. Who actually uses the CD anymore? It just becomes another Thing in my house. So I figured I'd ask a friend whom I know owns their stuff, and then I'd just pay the band some money next time I saw them. For a lark, I looked on iTunes this morning and, ta-da! So check out Steve Brown and the Bailers. They're wonderful. Only one of their albums is on iTunes, but I'm hoping the second one will be up soon.
This morning for breakfast, I wanted pancakes. So I made this recipe for Zucchini Pancakes. So good! I substituted honey for the sugar. Shane was wary ("Zucchini bread pancakes? All right, but I'm making bacon, too.") but even he liked them. And it's a really good way of getting rid of our frozen, shredded zucchini. We also used the last of our maple syrup. From now on I'm getting birch syrup, our local version. Drew asked, "What's the difference?" My answer: one is made from birch, the other from maple. He rolled his eyes at me. Silly little brothers. The truth is, I've had some birch syrup, but not enough to be able to explain the taste difference.
Today was also a momentous day because it's the first time I've been able to bike this year. Yes, bike! Other than one large patch of ice and a bit of slush, most of the sidewalks were clear. It helps that it's sunny and gorgeous (37 degrees right now--I wore a tank top and light jacket). So I biked to HG Market. I've been so scared of the grain room, but I used the last of our whole wheat flour on the pancakes this morning and made myself go in there. I jammed the grinder on my first try and had to get help. Those guys who work there are so nice. Anyway, my total shopping there was a big jar of local honey ($35!!), 2 lbs of bulgar wheat, carrots, and asparagus! Shane and I both love asparagus, so the fact that it's in season here (at least for greenhouse growers) made me super happy. We'll have that tonight with the only meat I bought today: kebabs. My mouth is already watering.
The market didn't have milk today, or eggs. We've got 2 eggs left and 2 gallons of milk left. (We usually go through about 3 gallons/week.) So I'm sure I'll end up going back soon.
Also, I only have about $67 left of my budget to spend for this week, and we only have 2 meals planned (tonight and tomorrow). This could get rather interesting. I think we'll be raiding the freezer quite a bit and getting creative.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Good planets are hard to find.

I talked with Shane last night about my blog and the challenge I'm setting before us. For the most part, he was really supportive. When I mentioned the budget, his first comment was, "Not possible. Not with Alaska prices." It's true, food costs a lot up here. I mean a lot. And when I dug a little deeper, I found out that his main concern was beer. A 12-pack of beer he actually likes to drink (the Alaskan brewery just rolled out their summer variety, his favorite) is around $12-15. When you're looking at a $125/week food budget, that makes beer extremely expensive. So I exempted beer. Well, most beer. I don't drink beer, for one, so that's purely his expense. But I say "most" because I do use it for bread. bread. So that will be part of the budget.
He also made me think of how I'm going to budget this out. I think I'll just make a spreadsheet and enter our food expenses every week, then add it all up at the end of one year (so April 14th next year) and get the average. Some weeks we go to the store several times and spend a lot of money, other weeks we go once and spend less than $50. But knowing that I have this budget means that I'll be far more careful when I shop, too.
The final thing Shane was concerned about, since it truly affects him, was my waste reduction campaign. So I figure I should define what, exactly, I want to do. I should start by saying that Fairbanks is far behind the rest of the country when it comes to recycling. The University is the main place for people to recycle things, and for those not on campus that takes a serious effort. At our house I keep a box where we put our recyclable plastics (only #1) and cans. When it starts to get full, I drag them to work with me and toss them in the proper recycling bins. Plastic bags can be recycled at Fred Meyer's, but I'd much rather not use plastic in the first place.
In my mind, not all waste was created equal. If I can, I would love to completely eliminate plastic from our garbage can, and from most of our house too. It's unnatural and the plastic we've already put in the environment has done and will continue to do immeasurable damage to the planet. The toxins it will be leaching into the environment for years to come is our legacy to future generations, and it's despicable. I really don't think they'll thank us for it. So getting rid of plastic whenever possible is goal #1. I'll need Shane's help since he uses plastic bags for the kitty litter. I do have some biodegradable bags that I use in the bathroom trash bin, but I've heard mixed opinions about those and I'm not sure I want to use them so much. We do keep our old bags from things such as pet food (they're covered in plastic--so I need to figure out a good alternative to them, too) and the bulk flour I buy (paper bags, thankfully). Perhaps we can use those for kitty litter, and leave them in the garage until they get full.
Metals and paper are natural resources, so I don't see them as being as bad as plastic. This does not mean, however, that I'm not doing what I can to reduce them. I'm trying to reduce the amount of paper I get for things like bills (yay for online bill paying!) and junk mail. Even in packaging. I look at things now by how much waste they will produce, and then decide if it's something I really need. As I said above, I recycle our cans and whatever plastics are possible, but I feel that I could do better in reducing the amount of waste I purchase.
One thing I've started doing a lot more of is buying in bulk. I've always bought our white flour in bulk from the Alaska Feed Company (although not wheat flour--it has a much shorter shelf life), and things like dried cherries. But now cereals, all of our other dried fruits (which tends to be how we make it through the winter--you cannot imagine our joy when summer comes and we get fresh fruit!), nuts, and even pastas come out of the bulk area at Fred Meyer's. (Even better, HGMarket just announced that they now have local pasta! I'll check it out this weekend.) Instead of grabbing new plastic bags every time, I simply bring the ones I already had at home and reuse them. At the zero waste home, they have glass jars that they've had the market weigh and put a label with that weight on, but I don't have so many jars. At least not yet. Mostly I've been using mason jars from stuff Shane's mom has given us (canned salmon, cherries and pears she canned years ago) and other glass jars I've saved from products I've bought.
Bea from the ZWH also uses jars for buying meat, and I might actually buy some jars for that. We're not going to store all of our moose meat and salmon in jars (currently it's in plastic and paper), but for bought meat I don't see why it wouldn't work.
One thing we use far too much of are Ziploc bags. The way I've been reducing our wastefulness on that front so far is by washing them out and reusing them at least a couple of times. (The only time I don't do this is when they've had raw meat in them--another reason to switch to jars!) On average, they get used about 3-4 times before getting holes or just falling apart. But I'm hoping that we can even reduce the number of them that we use. I want to get a bread box soon (I found a beautiful bamboo one), and I keep mentioning those jars I need to get for meat. There's also a local business that sells stainless steel sandwich boxes, and I have a coupon for 15% off. I'll go there soon and get one or two of those.
One little thing I've done recently was found a place that sells loose-leaf tea. I'm addicted to tea. Generally I have at least three cups each work day. I've been dissatisfied with the little plastic packets my favorite black tea comes in, so I found a local business that sells organic, free-trade loose leaf tea. And it comes in a stainless steel container! I'll see if the woman who owns the store will buy those back for a few cents so that it gets re-used. If she can't buy them back (or even take them back), maybe she could just refill mine? I'll see. It's good tea, too. Speaking of which, I think I'll go have another cup. :)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How to get started?

This question always seems to be the problem; people want to make changes but starting can seem so daunting. I guess in my case it's a little easier because I've been starting to slowly make changes in my lifestyle for the last several years.
From the time I was 12 until last year, I didn't eat beef or pork. This started out as kind of a fad (I had friends who were doing the same thing), but as I grew older there were so many reasons (health and the environment being the two biggest) that I kept it going. When I read the book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver, that was what made me decide that eating meat again wouldn't be such a bad idea. As long as it's local, without hormones, and pasture raised, I don't have a problem with it. (So many locavores and others will be apologetic about their meat eating, but I will stand firmly by my decision to eat meat.) Reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" took away any doubts I had about the ethics of eating meat. (No matter what I eat, it's an act of killing. So I might as well not be so selective about what I kill and instead be thankful that I have food and for the life that was given to sustain mine.)
But the question of where to find locally raised meat in Fairbanks, of all places, stymied me. It was purely by chance that a friend on Facebook mentioned HomeGrown Market. So I looked at their FB page, and finally went to the store. I explained my recent decision in favor of meat to the man behind the counter, and how long it had been since I'd had a steak (over half my life!). He very kindly wrapped up a small portion of New York cut steak and gave it to me for free to try. (I also bought some chicken for dinner on that trip.)
Well, it was amazing and I haven't looked back since. We get almost all of our meat and eggs from them, which is based on availability and in some ways that's really nice. I'll see something in the counter or hear someone else ask for something and think, I haven't eaten that in a long time! What could I make with it? (This is why I made pot roast last week--it was amazing!) And by watching the FB sales, we can stock up on things while they're cheap.
The one thing I'm trying to convince Shane we absolutely need to start buying there is bacon. That's the one meat product we consistently get from the grocery store and it has to stop. It doesn't even taste as good! But HG bacon is expensive. So today, what's their sale item? Bacon. Shane's going to stock up for us. And if I can save money in other ways, I can convince Shane good bacon is worth the price.
I've been gardening for the last couple of summers, since we moved into our current apartment, and it's been hit or miss for me. The summer before last I had zucchini practically growing out of my ears. (Not uncommon for zucchini.) Last summer, not so much. (Luckily, I've shredded and frozen it so I still haven't had to buy zucchini for over 2 years now.) This year, for the first time, I started my own plants from seeds. Of course, all I got was squash (btw, I love squash) and promptly forgot to label any of them. So somewhere in my army of squash starts, I have 8 zucchini plants, at least 5 yellow summer squash, 6 pumpkins, and any number of winter squashes (I got a mix packet). I still need to start my tomatoes, because I really would like to can as much of my own tomato sauce as possible. I've never done that before, so you'll get to hear all about my adventures in canning. (The only thing I've canned, plum jam, I burnt my face with boiling water. This year, I'm getting actual canning tools.)
So, I said in my last post that my first thought was about everything that I don't have. So I want to make a list of some things that I do have. The first is meat. Lots and lots and lots of meat. Moose, to be more specific. We have a chest freezer for all the moose that we get each fall. Shane's family goes hunting and whoever gets moose shares it around. It's in steaks, roasts, sausage, and ground up so we use it in place of beef most of the time. (I was even eating moose before I decided to eat beef again.) We also have another resource most people would love to get their hands on: wild Alaskan salmon. And it's free. In fact, we give leftovers to the dog. (She gets really excited when we pull a fillet out of the freezer, because she knows it means she'll at least get the skin.) Salmon, here, is so plentiful that one type (pinks) are even known as dog fish because it's oilier and "fit only for the dogs". (If you ever buy canned salmon, that's what you're getting.)
I also have my garden, as I mentioned, and a soon-to-be-mother-in-law who gardens. The kindergartners in Soldotna go to her house to plant or dig potatoes, depending on the time of year. So we rarely buy potatoes. (And that practice will stop soon.) Or rhubarb (which I still need to bake up, since we have plenty of leftovers from two summers ago....)
Things I want to do: can and freeze more of our grown and local veggies and fruits for winter. I went through our blueberries way too fast this last winter, and a lot of things I never froze. I could easily freeze things like broccoli.
I need to rearrange my recipes (I say that as if they're in some kind of order right now; so not true) so that they're more seasonally friendly. Shane made salmon chowder the other night, which is both hearty and yummy, but we ended up buying potatoes because the ones in our garage have grown huge roots (I'll plant them) and we didn't want to deal with them. It would be a recipe much better for autumn and winter, when we have a ton of potatoes and no idea what to do with all of them. Other recipes are better for spring and I need to dig those out. Of course, I'm always looking for new recipes.
And I bake. A lot. Who needs boxed cake mixes, chalky cookies, and cardboard-y bread? I made four loaves of bread just last night, and had both of the guys hovering until the white bread was out of the oven. (I make wheat bread for myself.)
One last thing I don't have: I'm not a great cook. I bake really well, not so much with cooking. Most women on these blogs say that, and then come out with amazing recipes that they've created using only what's on hand. And I'm getting a little better about being able to do that (or at least stocking up on things that can be used in multiple dishes and then making all of them) but I have to have a base recipe. I don't create my own. So don't expect that from me. I'll pass along great recipes that I've found, and send you to the source. Probably, a lot of them will have to do with squash. :)
Oh, as one final strike to me, I have a picky eater. Shane loves some things, and is willing to try just about anything once, but he doesn't like a lot of the same things as me. I love butternut squash soup, and he says it's like eating baby food. I love sweets, he loves salt. He's so adventurous in so many ways, such a risk-taker, who would've thought I'm the more adventurous eater?
The farmer's market here opens May 7th and I'll be totally ready by then to see what they have to offer. Usually not much the first week, but probably I could at least stock up on some more plants, like herbs. I think I'll even get my own rhubarb plant this year.


Ok, so I stopped posting a while ago because, well, I figure my blog was pretty boring. It was like an excessively boring online diary and who really wants to read that? All the blogs I love to read tend to have some sort of focus and I decided to change this one to better reflect one of my biggest interests: sustainability. There are so many blogs out there that will talk about sustainable practices, but I see several major faults with these. 1)They look at only one issue. There's the, which I love but really only focuses on trash. There are all sorts of locavore blogs, of which my two favorite recent discoveries are Diary of a Locavore and The Seasonal Family. But these last mostly focus on food, and not on trash or any other sustainable efforts. I think that we truly need to take all of these ideas and bring them together. (And yes, I realize that eating local tends to produce less waste, since you're not also buying all that packaging. But as little waste as the zero waste family? Probably not, since the only focus is food.)
2)Not one of these efforts is in Alaska, with all of our unique challenges and our climate. 7 months of winter can really take its toll on a pantry, even a very well-stocked one like ours. One of my friends posted to Facebook yesterday, "Fairbanks, it's April and I'm still wearing long underwear. WTF?" When most gardeners around the country are starting to see buds from their new plants, or at least to plant them outside, we're still clinging to the tail end of winter. When the planting and growing season starts, 24 hours of sunlight (well, ok, 23) helps, but the short growing season (and my lack of a greenhouse, since I rent) means that a lot of plants simply don't grow around here.
When I thought about starting this adventure yesterday, and embarking on a challenge to really eat as locally and sustainably as possible, the first thing that came to mind was everything that I'd have to give up. Most fruits, for instance. The only ones that grow locally are berries: strawberries (only if you garden, none wild), blueberries (both wild and cultivated), raspberries (wild, mostly), and cranberries (wild). Shane's mom planted an apple tree a couple of summers ago, a Canadian variety that's supposed to be able to survive down to -40, but it's not mature enough to grow fruit yet (if it ever will). Even if it does produce fruit, they live in Soldotna (about three hours beyond Anchorage) and we live in Fairbanks. It's a 10-14 hour drive to get down there, depending on the season.
Which brings me to 3)What is local in Alaska? In a state this large, it's harder to define. For most locavores, that means within a 100 mile radius. But here, one of our most productive centers of food production, the Matanuska Valley, is just outside of Anchorage. In other words, over 300 miles from where I live. When I buy something from Alaska Grown, that's generally where it's coming from. And even then, a lot of things can't be found under that label. And I'm not talking mangos and bananas. Most farmers up here don't grow grains, for instance. "Local" for things like flour could mean Washington State. To get from there to here is about as far as food travels for most of the continental U.S. (an average of 1500 miles from farm to plate). Not exactly sustainable or local. Still, it's better than buying from California or South America. And I should ask around to see if I can get find some local sources for grains. (Until now, that hasn't been as high on my list of priorities.) Perhaps if enough of us ask someone will start growing grains here? The University of Alaska Fairbanks (as a land grant school) does have a large field (I think it's wheat?) and I need to find out what happens to that product. Considering the other sustainability efforts the U is undertaking, and the push to grow more of our own food, probably it gets served to students throughout the year.
On top of all of this, I'm adding one more challenge to myself: work with as small a budget as possible. Like so many other people at the moment, Shane is jobless. He finished his last classes in December (no longer eligible for his student job, in other words) and graduates in just a few weeks. He's been applying to pretty much every job in his field (biology), and has gotten nothing but rejection so far. (Very disheartening.) So we're on one rather small salary, also partially supporting my little brother while he's in school (although I'm trying to wean him away from depending on us so much) and a dog and a cat. As of 2005, the average couple with only one wage earner spent roughly $121 per week on groceries. So that is my target. Feed all of us on $125/week or less, as locally as possible, and while producing as little trash as possible.
The final part of this is my goal to simply consume less. And I'm not talking about food (although that would certainly help with the budget...), I'm talking resources. Clothing, gasoline, paper, etc. We all use or have too much of it. There is the minimalist movement where people only have 100 items in their homes, but that's a little extreme for me. (Just as I will never, ever give up my toilet paper in the name of zero waste.) I have more than 100 items just in my kitchen, and they all get used on a regular basis. I also read prolifically, and while I do get a lot of books from the library, I own more than 300 just in my apartment. (Probably well over 400 if you count the ones still at my parents' house--Shane claims I have way too many, but still bought me a book for my birthday this year.) And I don't consider them junk or a waste of space and resources as so many people do. So they're staying.
But I do make it a habit to regularly clean out my closet and donate the clothes I never wear (sorry, Mom, I just don't like turtlenecks). We've also been consciously reducing the amount we drive. I know, I know, with the gas prices this high (I think around $4.00/gallon around here, although the last time we filled up was in March) who isn't cutting back on that? Still, it's not just about the money to me. When we searched for apartments last time, we found one that is in walking distance to the University so that Shane and I don't need to drive...or spend over $300 on a parking pass. Since a lot of our friends are students, grad students, staff, or alumni, a lot of our activities are at the University, too. (Hello, Pub!) So we walk. Or bike, depending on the season. (Shane bikes all winter, but my bike has hybrid tires that don't do so well on the snow and ice. I didn't feel like spending a lot of money on new tires, rims, etc., to get my bike winterized. I walk or bus to and from work in the winter. Even around here that's considered a bit odd, when someone's walking at -40.)
The biking is excellent here, too. Not so much because the roads and paths are excellent (winter is so hard on them) but just because most of the places we need to get to can easily be biked to. Fairbanks is small. "Across town" is about a ten minute drive, and then what's the point of driving? The farmer's market, several of our friends' houses, the grocery stores and our favorite HomeGrown Market (I'll talk about them a lot, I'm sure) are all within a 20 minute bike ride. Our favorite summertime date is to walk the dog to Hot Licks Ice Cream (a local company) and get cones, then walk home. Such an easy way to connect with each other and make the dog super happy at the same time. No car necessary.
This is getting too long, so I'll post another one about current efforts and goals.