Friday, March 30, 2012


I finally got a chance to read the latest issue of Agroborealis, and it was worth the wait. So many great articles about food and agriculture and sustainability within Alaska! I highly recommend giving it a read.

To (sham)poo or not to (sham)poo?

Perhaps it's just the sites and blogs that I read, but lately it feels like everyone's going crazy over the no shampooing (otherwise called "no-'poo") trend. People are ditching shampoo like they suddenly found out it kills puppies. (No, that's not a link to a site saying that shampoo kills puppies. Just an article saying what's really in shampoo.)
Well. Over the last six months or so I've tried out a variety of no-'poo (baking soda, vinegar, regular bar soap) options and I have hated every one of them. Most of the people who've loved going without shampoo, it turns out, have curly or at least wavy hair. I do not. My hair is as straight as can be, and fine. Not only that, but I have a lot of it. Oh, it's not terribly long, only down to about my shoulders. But it's super thick, which is both a blessing and a curse. So I haven't managed to stick with any non-shampoo solution for more than a week and a half. I know they say you're supposed to give it at least a month, but when you're hair both looks and feels like you dipped your head in canola oil, it's not fun.
It also hasn't seemed that urgent because we've been running on the same shampoo for about two years now--free shampoo. Our old roommate, when he left, left a lot of his junk. Some of his shirts, some old sheets, crap that I don't know what to do with...we're even still getting his mail over two years after he moved out. Among the things he left, though, were several new bottles of shampoo. We told him he'd left them and he answered, "Whatever." So that's what we've been using. And since neither of us washes our hair every day (the only times I wash more than every other day is if I've been working out) and since we don't tend to use much shampoo when we do wash, these bottles have lasted a loooong time.
We finally ran out, though, and I fulfilled a promise to myself. If I'm not going no-'poo, at least I can choose a better brand. While I know there are all sorts of problems with the company (like the fact that it's actually owned by a multinational conglomerate and blah blah blah) I chose a Burt's Bees shampoo. (It was by far the cheapest "natural" shampoo.) I noticed a difference right away. For one thing, I can tell that this shampoo doesn't use the industrial solvents that are in regular shampoo (some of which are used to clean up motor oil). My hair felt a little greasier than it normally does after being washed, but not as bad as any of the no-'poo options had left it. So I've kept trying it, and noticed more changes to my hair. I no longer seem to have that icky layer of product build-up on my scalp, and my hair looks a bit shinier. After about a week, the slightly greasy feeling is mostly gone, so I'm hoping that perhaps this is one step toward actually going no-'poo. Maybe my hair just needs more of a gradual change. (I really don't want to spend at least $8 per bottle of shampoo for the rest of my life!)
I should say here that I also haven't been using conditioner, earth-friendly or otherwise. In general, the only reason for conditioner is because normal shampoo is so harsh on your hair that you then need to add more chemicals to keep it from looking like you've just dumped a load of toxic, harsh chemicals on your head. And since my hair has been shinier since making this switch, I don't think I'll ever buy conditioner again.
Overall, I'm really glad that I'm starting to make a switch. Maybe toward the end of this bottle I'll start working in some of the no-'poo options a few days a week and see how that goes.
In the interest of full confession, Shane has not been using this shampoo. He tried it only one night and said it left him feeling like a grease-ball. So he bought his own shampoo. At some point, maybe I'll get him to switch. But maybe not. He can be rather stubborn.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


An excellent article today arguing about why climate change transcends political affiliation. We've all created this problem, and it's up to all of us to fix it as best we can. Insulting and demeaning science and scientists does no one any good.

Salvaging the compost

The title of this is a little misleading. By "salvaging" I don't mean getting the useful stuff out of your compost, I mean saving it from you. Or rather, in this instance, me. Back in January I noticed that my compost was no longer compressing down. Usually I take my old coffee tin full of compost out to the bin in the garage about once per week, or even a little less depending on what we've cooked. And usually, the pile has mooshed down from the level it was at before. That's a a good thing, it's what compost is supposed to do. Well, mine had stopped doing that. I assumed that it was because the compost froze, since it's near the doors and there was ice on the rim. But then, something happened which I hadn't though possible: I filled up the compost bin in February. This might not seem worrisome, but I could tell that something was wrong. It just didn't look right. The compost wasn't, er, composting. Sure, the food scraps were moldy and rotting. And it smelled like rot, which is not actually what a good compost pile is supposed to do. Further, I keep a plastic lid from a different bin under it so that any liquid doesn't run out all over the garage. Well, this lid was completely full of liquid that I couldn't seem to make go away. At this point, it definitely wasn't because the compost was frozen, so I needed to figure out the real problem.
So I did what I always do in these situations: I checked the tubes (internet) to see what I was doing wrong. Well, I feel silly. I was completely forgetting to add "brown" or "woody" material to the compost. Good compost should have at least a 50-50 ratio of "green" material to "brown" material. Some people even say it should be more like 40-60, with more brown material than green. Since I couldn't exactly add wood chips or dead leaves at this point in the winter, I shredded up a bunch of newspaper (from work--we recycle our papers after two weeks and anyone who wants the old ones is free to take them) and added that on top. Then I let it go for three weeks without adding any more compost. (I have two coffee tins in the kitchen to hold scraps and they got full.) But it worked! The next time I went out to check on it, it was immediately obvious that the compost was once again composting. It had compressed down to almost half of what it had been, the smell was gone, and so was the standing liquid. So now each time I add my food scraps, I also add a layer of newspaper on top. This is the new way I've been handling compost for about a month now and it's working brilliantly.
I have no way of turning over my compost, so no way of seeing what the bottom layer is like. I'm excited, though, because I'm sure there's some quality dirt at the bottom. This summer I'll have to figure out a way to get down there and get at the usable stuff.
I'm also thinking that I might add one light layer of compost-able material to my bins full of dirt before I plant in them. That way as it composts in place this summer, it will release nutrients for whatever I plant in them. And since composting is a heat-generating process, it will help to keep the roots warm, at least in the beginning, and protect them from cold-ish nights. I've heard of other people doing this with great results, so it's worth a try.
And btw, Breakup has started. In less than a week we went from me grumbling about our still cold temperatures to t-shirt weather. Of course, this also means that everything is covered in a layer of slush and muck. I'm back to wearing boots for my walk to and from work so that my pants don't get (too) filthy. Now I just need to convince myself that I really should hold off on planting my seeds until next week or the week after....

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pure Folly

I'm sorry if I've seemed a little absent lately. I could say I've been busy (which is true) but that feels like a cop-out to me. Honestly, I just haven't felt much like writing. I guess all my creativity has gone into "The Music Man". :)
On top of that, though, I've been sore and uncomfortable. I actually felt like running on Friday afternoon (I hate running, and don't usually enjoy it so I try to take advantage when I do) but the dog got over-excited and was a terrible running partner. She tripped me several times by stopping in front of me (usually on the ice because, you know, why would she want to stop on bare ground when I could easily stop too?), which culminated in one flying leap in an attempt to avoid kicking the dog, then having my foot slip out from under me (we were on an icy downhill) on the landing. I have what is now my largest bruise ever: a softball sized bruise on my left butt cheek. (I know, I know, TMI!) But can you see now why sitting in front of a computer to write doesn't seem so appealing? Sitting, in general, is not my favorite activity. Add in this bruise and I've been avoiding it as much as possible. It's even made me tired because every time I roll over in my sleep I put pressure on the bruise and it wakes me up. The dog has been trying to apologize by snuggling against my back (like a buffer) every night.
But this morning, I saw something that offended me so terribly that I had to write. Apparently, there was a rally here to try to get the state government to lower the oil and gas taxes. Not what we pay at the pump, but what the companies (like Exxon and BP) pay for the privilege of drilling here. Let's ignore for the minute the fact that the past few years have been a boom time for oil company profits and go straight to the heart of the issue. IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT THEIR TAXES AND TAX RATES ARE, THE FACT IS THAT THEY NEED THE OIL AND WE HAVE IT. There. We have what they need. Of course they want their taxes lowered. If they can get what they want from us and make just a few cents more in profit, they'll do it. The idea that their tax rate is too high is a pure lie. A lie which, apparently, fooled over 200 people who went to the rally.
Giving into this is folly on the grandest of scales. Forget trump cards, forget having the best hand. We hold ALL of the cards. They'll drill no matter what the tax rate is because they don't have any other choice. Also, having our state lower their taxes still wouldn't meant that the federal government would give them the permits needed to drill. OUR STATE HAS VERY LITTLE SAY IN THIS MATTER. Why should we give in to what is essentially blackmail from the oil companies? ("Give us tax cuts or we won't drill here anymore!")
This is a debate that's been raging since last summer when the same companies asked for over $2 billion dollars in tax cuts from the state. I can't believe there are people, ordinary people, who agree with that sentiment. How much improvement could be made to the infrastructure and schools in our state with just one tenth of the money they were asking for in tax cuts? How many state workers could get well-earned raises with that money? How much of it could go into research?
The idea that they need anything in tax breaks when they're pulling in record profits is just absurd. I sincerely hope the lawmakers in my state are intelligent enough to remember that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nutrition on the fly -- Alaskan Pie

For the most part, I'm really good about planning meals. Because it's hard to know what's going to come up during any given week, I don't usually write down meals on a night-by-night basis, just what meals we should have soon. That way when I go to the store, I know what to get so that we have the ingredients for each of the meals on hand and we can cook whatever we feel like having, or whatever works best for a particular night.
And then, there are nights like last night. I don't know why, but when I went to the grocery store this past weekend I completely forgot to get half the ingredients I'd planned for Monday's meal. And the only reason I'd planned a specific meal on a specific night was because it called for moose and everything else we wanted to make soon, we need chicken for. HGMarket is closed on Sundays and Mondays so today is the earliest I can get chicken. Well, I forgot half the ingredients for the meal (stroganoff) that I'd planned for. Silly, right? And naturally, I didn't want to make two different trips to the store (one for the stroganoff ingredients, another to get chicken from the Market.) So I spent a decent amount of time yesterday afternoon thinking about what I could make instead. "Pasta and marinara? No, I don't feel like it and I'd have to get more noodles anyway. Pizza? No, we don't have mozzarella, and not enough of any other kind of cheese. Hmmm..."
And then, I managed to think myself out of the box. I decided to make something I'd never made before: shepherd's pie. I suppose it can't really be called shepherd's pie, not having any lamb or anything. Just moose. (Technically, if you use beef it's called "Cottage Pie".) So I'll call it...

Alaskan Pie

1 lb ground moose meat
1 onion
3 carrots
frozen peas
2 sweet potatoes
Worcestershire sauce
garlic powder, salt, and pepper

Boil and mash the sweet potatoes (with butter) the same as you would regular mashed potatoes.
Meanwhile, cook the chopped onion in about a tablespoon of butter. Add the carrots and the moose, browning the meat. Add the spices and several dashes of the Worcestershire sauce. Toward the end of the cooking, add frozen peas and cook until they're warm.
Transfer into a 9x9 baking pan, then top with the mashed potatoes and place in a 350 degree oven for about half an hour, or until slightly browned on top. Serve hot.

It turned out to be a big hit. Which is good, because we had a friend surprise us. Just as I was starting dinner, Shane got a call from Gorgeous George asking, "Um, can I get a ride? My truck...." So Shane picked him up, and they naturally got to talking and it turned out poor George had been having a rough time lately. So Shane brought him home for dinner (George lives alone and you don't want to know what he eats--I once saw him eating saltines mashed up with milk and maple syrup poured over them). No sooner had he started digging in than George declared, "I'm coming over for dinner again next week, ok?" Shane said that the sweet potato topping was "inspired", and that I should definitely make this again.
Yesterday I was thinking about it and I realized that whoever said "necessity is the mother of invention" clearly didn't live in our modern society. Because we have such an attitude of "why make it when you can buy it?" and it kills creativity. We never have to think our way out of problems because we can buy our way out. Don't worry, I realize that I can be just as bad about this as anyone else. I'm trying to change that about myself. When I do things creatively, I often find out that my solution was just as good as whatever I would have bought to solve the problem. I never would have thought about making this meal if I'd gone to buy all the ingredients for the stroganoff, and that would have been a shame because this was easy, nutritious, tasty, and we usually have these ingredients on hand. So now, if I don't know what to make in the future and I'm in a bind, it'll be Alaskan Pie.

Monday, March 26, 2012

How I want to spend my summer

If there's one thing that's important around here, it's to come up with the best that the two main seasons have to offer and then to go forth and do those things wholeheartedly. Having goals is important. In the summer it helps you to hold onto every moment and cherish it. During the winter, it helps ease the cold and dark while making it seem not so long. In both seasons, I never quite seem to get through my list of goals. But would I really want to? Probably not. And it leaves plenty for the next year.
So how do I want to make the most of my summer?

Softball. Since I broke my nose playing last summer, I've had a number of friends ask me if I'm still willing to play this year, and if I'm still willing to play catcher, and my answer is, of course! Just, with a helmet and face mask this summer. ;) It sounds like it'll be the last summer for softball, at least with this particular group of friends. People are getting married, starting families, and one friend (the team captain) is leaving for the military next fall. People are planning to move sometime. Thinking about it makes me sad, since summers will never be the same. I'm so used to going to softball, both my games and Shane's, and summer will feel just a little bit empty without it.

Floating down the Chena River. For those who don't live here, lakes and rivers aren't really for swimming. They just don't warm up enough. But on a hot summer day, there are few things more enjoyable than floating in a raft down the river with friends. A lot of people bring beer, or pull in at the bars along the way to do shots before getting back in the river. My favorite is to drink iced tea and chat with friends, but I've never had a bad time floating down the river.

Camping. We go camping every summer for at least a few days at the 4th of July with my in-laws, so this seems like an obvious one. But I really, really want to do some other camping. I'd love to go camping and hiking in Denali, which I've never done. Isn't it ridiculous to live so (relatively) close to North America's tallest peak and never really visit? I think so. And it's beautiful there. I feel like to fully enjoy my state, and all of the wonderful things there are, I need to get out and experience it. Starting with Denali.
The other place I most want to camp is up around Circle, at the summer solstice. I don't know if we'll get to that this summer, but it's another part of fully appreciating my state. The town of Circle is at the Arctic Circle, so going there at the summer solstice means seeing the sun never set. True, in Fairbanks it doesn't get dark in the summer. But the sun does set. How many people get to say they've seen a day without sunset or sunrise?

Berry picking with friends. I know, I know, I already listed how many of each kind of local berry I really want to get in my post about preserving the harvest. But for me, berry picking is so much more than just a subsistence act. For one thing, it ties me to my ancestors and relatives. Both of my grandmothers are dead now, but they were great friends and avid berry pickers. Every time I tell my dad that I've been berry picking he tells me, "Your grandmothers would be so proud." My parents still laugh about how they'd all be driving out to go camping and have to come to a screeching halt whenever one or the other of my grandmothers yelled, "Blueberries!" I'm carrying on the tradition.
More than just that, though, it's also a time to connect with friends. Berry picking by yourself is, first of all, dangerous. The best berry spots are out in bear country so it makes sense to have people with you to talk and help keep the bears away. And through talking, you connect more with the people who've come along. You create bonds and memories with them which last a lifetime. That's just as nourishing as the berries you're picking. I'd bet just about anything that the idea and tradition of women as "gossips" has its origins in the gathering and foraging traditions of our ancestors, as they chatted during their gleanings.

Go for one long bike ride each week. Last summer, I didn't get out nearly as often as I would have liked. And since summer is the only season when it really makes sense to bike (I could bike during the winter, but it would suck) I need to make it more of a priority. This is an activity I sorely miss during the winters. The first long bike ride of each summer feels like flying. I come home sore, exhausted, and utterly happy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Darn it

Keep bragging about your abnormally warm temperatures, Lower 48ers. Meanwhile I'll be up here, debating about what thickness of long underwear to put on for a run with the dog (medium) and whether or not I should put the arm warmers on (not). My (fully charged) iPod shut off halfway through the run because it was too cold. I should knit or crochet a little iPod cozy for myself.
On the plus side, I didn't have to take a flashlight, despite leaving the house at 8:20 and knowing we wouldn't be back until about 9:00. We're getting over 12 hours of daylight! Everything is so bright, with the sunlight bouncing off the snow. In the mornings it's light enough on my walk to work that I get to see the streetlights shut off. Despite the temperatures, summer is on its way.
At work, my two pea plants have almost reached the tops of their cages already. I'm hoping that this means they're going to start bushing out soon. The bean plant is putting out more true leaves every couple of days, although it's still only about half as tall as the peas (which is as it should be). One of my tomatoes is starting to put out its first true leaves and I'm excited for the progress it's making. My other little tomato, which I started after the other one (the first seed I tried didn't germinate) is looking a bit too leggy, but I don't think that can really be helped unless I buy grow lights. (They're expensive, even on Craigslist!) I think the reason it didn't grow quite as well as the other is simply because it started over a weekend, when I wasn't here to take the plastic off the top and give it room to grow up.
If you're confused by "true leaves", I say that because the first leaf-looking things a plant puts out aren't actually leaves. They're called cotyledons, and they don't do any photosynthesizing. I don't know what their purpose is, either, but I'm sure Wikipedia knows.
If you're confused by my description of my "leggy" plant, it's when the stem of a plant grows faster than the leaves do. This is fine for vine plants (like peas), which are supposed to grow up really fast. But it's not so good with things like tomatoes, because it means that they're not getting the proper conditions for best growth. It also often means that the roots are under-developed. I might try moving this particular plant to a window I've scoped out on the south side of the building for a few days so that it can get some direct sunlight.
And if you're surprised that I used plastic in my seed starting, don't worry. I'm not abandoning my principles. A lot of the journals the library gets come in clear plastic bags. (I wrote to one of the major publishers to say that I thought it was silly for environmental and biology-related journals to waste so much plastic and they basically answered, "It's not our fault, people have asked for the journals to be wrapped. They're recyclable." I do recycle it, but I'd much rather they don't send it in the first place! It seemed like the biggest cop-out of an answer.) So I cut one of those bags open to lay over my seed starts. The warmth helps them to germinate faster and better, and the clearness is just as important because light helps many seeds germinate. (You'll know if it's important because when it is, the seed packet will tell you not to totally cover the seed with dirt.) So I'm simply reusing something before it gets recycled.
We're making progress. I just need to remind myself of that every day. It seems like such minute progress, and it can easily be lost under the metaphorical pile. We're making progress. We're making progress. We're making.....

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mutton chops: my dog has them.

The dog got a haircut last week. When Shane took her in he told the groomers to "keep the mutton chops" and they did.
She looks utterly ridiculous (the picture doesn't quite do it justice because her ears get in the way), and has earned the nickname of "bearded lady". I keep telling Shane he's cruel for having taken away her superpower: sad eyes. Usually she has the ability to make us feel guilty for just about anything. The eyes say, "Why are you leaving me? I don't like being abandoned...." Or sometimes, "Why are you not giving me those meats? I like meats. I would gladly take them off your hands for you...." Now she just looks silly, and the power of her sad eyes is gone.
I can't even feel that sorry for her when she shivers. Which she's been doing a lot of. I wrap her in blankets as often as possible to help keep her warm but if I then leave the room she tends to jump up and follow me. At least she's been warm at night, snuggling down under the covers with us...between us.
So if your dog, too, is having a hard time adjusting to a new haircut, or any new circumstances, I have a few simple steps you can take to help them feel better.

1.When looking through the freezer for dinner options, unearth an unidentifiable and badly freezer burned steak or chop of some kind. (Seriously, we couldn't tell what it was.) Set it out to thaw.
2.Finally decide that the salmon filet which keeps throwing itself out of the freezer at your feet was meant to be dinner. Set it out to thaw as well.
3. Bake both (in separate dishes, of course) and give the dog a mix of salmon and steak for dinner.
4.Before she's done eating those, make a whole chicken for dinner, reserving the giblets for dog meat. Cook them up and serve them with the leftover salmon and steak as dinner.

This is how to win your dog's undying loyalty. (As if you didn't have it already!) It's amazing how much having a dog around helps to prevent waste in our household, though. Leftovers gone bad? As long as they don't have things in them that are bad for dogs (like onions, grapes, and chocolate) they can be fed to the dog. Any freezer-burned meat we find gets cooked up for the dog. Heck, even moldy bread could be given to her. (I put it in the compost instead, just to be on the safe side.) She's our little waste disposal unit. :)
Speaking of whole chickens, though, (it's a terrible segue, I know) that's what we're having for dinner tonight. J&L&Baby will be over so it'll be a great mid-week meal with friends. I just wish I'd remembered to set up the CrockPot last night the way I intended to. This morning I opened the fridge to get out my breakfast and thought, "Oh, crap." As if it wasn't bad enough to have to set it all up, the crock was still dirty from our roast the other day so I had to clean it out, too. Then simultaneously make and eat breakfast, make lunch, make dinner, feed the pets, let the dog out/in. I can't believe I made it to work on time.

P.S. I've discovered that the best topping for those zucchini pancakes I love so much isn't maple syrup (although that's still great). What I like even better is cheaper, can be sourced more locally for most people, and way more nutritious: applesauce. Yum!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It's the bees knees

For a little while now I've been thinking that it might be neat to try my hand at beekeeping. Literally, this is an idea I've been mulling over for several years. What's held me back is twofold. The first is, I think I might be slightly allergic to bee stings. Or maybe it's just wasps? I'm not usually a sissy when it comes to pain. I didn't even take any painkillers (beyond a few ibuprofen for swelling) after my nose surgery last summer. So when I say that bee/wasp stings are probably the second worst pain I've endured (after that kidney stone I had), that's saying something. I think I've actually only been stung by wasps, though, and never bees. Is there a difference in the stings? Could I be allergic to one and not the other?
The other concern of mine is the startup costs. It can be very expensive to buy all of the beekeeping equipment! And it's at a premium around here. I've kept my eye on the farm and garden section of Craigslist and I haven't yet seen beekeeping equipment going for less than $300.
The final downside, and this is something I learned recently, is that the colony needs to be killed at the end of every summer. They just don't live through our winters. So it's not just a one-time cost for bees the way it is for most beekeepers, and I can't go out and find a wild hive to replenish with. Not to mention, I'd feel bad for the poor bees!
On the other hand, local honey is outrageously expensive. I can get a partly full two-quart sized jar of honey for the low, low price of $35. On the other hand it's at least real honey, which that sold in grocery stores isn't. I don't know that I buy into the idea of local honey being a "cure" for allergies, and I'm not sure if it's healthier than actual sugar. But it can be produced locally (which sugar can't) and it's darn tasty. If I can make some myself, that would seriously cut down on the "honey" portion of our budget.
There are also plenty of resources. There's a man I work with who keeps bees and is very happy to instruct and help with any bee questions. Additionally, there's a, I guess you could call it. They meet at the coffee shop right by my house sometimes. At the very least, I might try going to their next meeting if I can make it. I could get a better idea of what it costs them, what gear I'd actually need, and what beekeeping would actually involve.
The only person I've ever known well who kept bees is my brother in law, who had bees last summer. But he had them down in Soldotna so I never got to know what, exactly, was involved. Still, he'll be a great resource if I decide to go for this.
I guess the most important thing for me is the startup cost. If I can get beekeeping equipment for little to no cost, that would be worth it. If I have to spend a lot of money, however, that wouldn't be. (Spending $300 to save on $100 worth of honey is not exactly a frugal idea. Nor would it be smart in our current circumstances.)
The final benefit of having my own beehive, beyond just honey, would be what it can do for my garden. Just one colony of bees can improve the conditions and output of the plants for a 3-mile area around them. Isn't that incredible? I've already been looking into companion planting (I have a plan!), so why not use bees as another method to improve my garden's productivity?

I was so glad to read this morning that I'm not the only one who's somewhat baffled by everyone else complaining about what a warm, unusual winter it's been in the Lower 48. I realize that it's worrisome, especially for people in agriculture (most notably, maple syrup producers, who need very specific conditions in which to tap the trees, which they didn't get much of this year) but it's been the complete opposite of what we've had in Alaska. Record snowfalls, record cold in places, and just generally un-fun conditions. (It's currently -6 and breezy.) Most of us just don't know what spring will bring this year. Will it be unexpectedly early? How deep does the frost go? Because that's the most important thing when it comes to trying to time planting and gardening around here. Will we have an awful, miserable Breakup, or will the snow slowly melt away? We just don't know yet. But the Nenana Ice Classic is in full swing again as everyone waits for the surest sign of Breakup.

**Update: I just checked Craigslist again and there's a beehive (just the hive, no bees and no other gear) for...$450.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A long weekend has never been so short

Thanks to spring break around here (yeah, yeah, I's not spring yet) the U gave employees a three day weekend. Since that coincided with the opening of "The Music Man", it gave me an actual day for weekend-y stuff. Like taking a good hard look at some of our bills and making changes. The biggest thing was that we went to the internet place, which has now finally divorced its phone and cable packages from internet. So we got stand alone internet, and thanks to a promotion we're getting a reduced rate for a while. So that should save us quite a bit of money.
The musical is going really well. The first night was interesting, though. We'd just gotten into "Ya Got Trouble" when the fire alarm went off! Ah, community theater! Everyone had to evacuate. I was...well, in the circumstances it was smart, but if there had really been a fire it would have been stupid. I ran back to the green room to put my violin in its case (don't want to take it out in the cold!) and grabbed my hat, gloves, and coat. I should have grabbed more, though. I left my scarf and my fleece in the green room thinking I'd be fine. I was, but half the cast and orchestra had gone outside without anything to keep warm. And the wind was blowing. So I gave my hat to another woman and pulled up my hood. Despite being so close, it took the fire department about ten minutes to get down there, and then another ten to give us the all clear. By the time we got back inside, everyone was frozen. Even with my gloves and my pockets, my fingers were frozen and stiff. Do you have any idea how hard it is to play a string instrument when your fingers are cold? The wind players were making horse-like noises with their lips to warm them back up. But it turned out to be fine. The audience was great about it. The orchestra decided that Tommy Djilas did it (which is only funny if you know the show!).
Our weekly total was $130. Ouch, right? But we also fed my little brother all week, since the Commons closed down for the break.
I was talking with a friend and we agreed that this time of year is just always expensive. Rate increases from the electric company, still having to heat homes and paying a lot for oil, the price of gas usually goes up, and we're running out of our local food (except, of course, meat and fish) from last summer so we're buying a lot more. I think it's just one more reason why everyone is anxious for summer to get here. The ease and bounty of summer is beckoning. Signs of the approaching spring are out there. The roads are bare in most places, rather than shiny with ice. The build up of snow on our back porch is getting that funny look of bulging out at the sides from having melted a little bit in the middle. And of course, the sun is back, out for over half the day now. Summer will come, and sooner than I think it will.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

Just a little lesson we learned the other night: you can't substitute cayenne pepper for chili powder on a 1-1 ratio. Shane made our enchiladas almost inedibly spicy (at least for me, my little brother--who loves spicy foods--thought they were great) and I had to smother mine in my homemade sour cream (amazing, by the way) to choke it down.
And if you do eat something that burns your mouth and tummy for hours afterward, don't compound the problem by doing vigorous exercise afterwards. That was not a good choice.

P.S. What's with the wind?? I had to walk facing the wind for only a short time this morning and my face went instantly numb from the cold. Was it this bad last year at this time?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Saving money vs. putting money in savings

I was reading something someone wrote about saving money on groceries the other day. She mentioned that any amount of money saved can go instead toward other things, like clothing, and it got me thinking about the difference between saving money on a thing vs. actually putting money into a savings account. Mind you, I don't see the point in saving money simply for the sake of saving money. (That's called greed, children.) But I do believe in putting money away for "a rainy day", or for future goals. When you save money on one thing, only to turn around and spend that money on something else, are you really saving money? Or are you just buying more stuff?
I guess the answer to that really depends on what you're buying, and why. In this woman's case, she and her husband don't have a lot of money and they do have two children. Since children grow quickly, and thus out-grow quickly, I think putting a bit more money away for clothing is a very justified reason to spend that money rather than putting it in savings for her other goals. The money saved from one necessary item (food) is going to another necessary item (clothing).
Where I think people run into trouble is when they "save" money on something they don't need ("Look, honey, a new flat-screen for only $300!!") and use that "saved" money to buy more crap they don't need. What on earth is the point of that? That's not saving anything!
In the same way, I hate the checking accounts which automatically move your money from checking to savings to "help" you save money. The commercials always show someone with not a lot of money (like a teacher) who loves it because, "It makes saving so much easier!" Yeah, except when you overdraft your account and rack up major fees because of it. Thanks, Bank. It's not like this feature actually adds any money to your account, it just moves your money around. If you have enough money to save some, it's much better to sit down and figure out just how much you can put into savings every month. Most companies which auto-pay will even put money into different accounts (my U will split your paycheck into up to three different accounts if you want) so you don't have to do any extra work. Set it up and you're good to go. Do you really want your bank (even an automated banking system) to be in charge of your savings, or would you rather be the one in charge? And if you're not making enough money to save some on your own, why on earth would you want your bank to transfer money to a savings account for you? Be in charge of your own money.
I forget why I felt the need to rant about this, but I did. I guess because I see it so often. People will feel so proud of themselves for pinching a few pennies on toilet paper only to go buy the latest and greatest gadget to replace their still working but year-old model. Hello, iPhones! Was anyone else's Facebook page lit up with friends saying things along the lines of, "I can't wait to ditch my iPhone 3 and get the iPhone 4!!!" It's the same way with cars. What on earth is wrong with your 2-year-old car that you need to trade it in and get a new one? I'm very proud of "our" truck. It's old, and yes it gets terrible gas mileage, which is why we will want to replace it at some point (with a newer used car). It doesn't heat well (or really, at all, in the winter) and there are a few quirks. But the fact that it's lasted this long, and in such great condition, is really a testament to the love and care my in-laws put into it. I love that it has so many miles on it. This truck has been up, down, and all around Alaska. And that is something in which I take more pride than any new, shiny, expensive car could give me.
Being frugal isn't always about finding the lowest price. Usually it's more about finding the best deal. Sometimes this means going cheap, but other times it means buying something which will last and pay out over time. The other part of buying something which is built to last, however, is the follow through: you need to hang onto it. Don't be seduced into buying something "newer and better!" simply because it's been discounted slightly. And if you do let yourself be seduced, don't kid yourself. You're not saving anything. The only tried and true method for saving money is to stash money somewhere (in a bank, under your mattress, doesn't matter) and don't touch it. Spending money for something new, no matter how low the price, never equals saving money.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 many bowls

Any kitchen which is going to be functional needs bowls. Generally, lots of bowls of varying sizes. But you know this already, don't you?
For our wedding, we received no less than eight bowls. Two very pretty salad bowls, and two sets of mixing bowls. Considering that we already had several bowls of our own, it seemed like bowl overload. (The last time we chatted, my best friend noted that she hadn't yet sent us a wedding present. After the usual back-and-forth of 'don't be silly, you don't need to send a present' and 'don't you be silly, of course I do', I gave in with the caveat no more bowls.) Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful. But this seemed like an excessive amount of bowls. Particularly since we're very short on (usable) kitchen storage space and I wasn't sure where I was going to fit all these bowls. (The obvious answer would seem to be, inside other bowls. Trust me. We've done that. In our kitchen, everything which can be stacked is.) Perhaps I should be grateful that one of my Pyrex bowls shattered so spectacularly in the autumn? Anyway, I admit to feeling a twinge of dismay when, sometime around Christmas, my brother-in-law gave us our second set of mixing bowls as a late wedding present. (Mind you, we only had the one set of mixing bowls on our registry, and neither of the salad bowls. I figured with that one mixing set we'd be set for the rest of our lives. Our family had a different opinion, I guess.) But the bowls he gave us aren't just ordinary bowls. Not only are they mixing bowls, but they have lids.
I have a very sorry history of lids. I always see things with lids (like Pyrex pans) and think, "Why would you need a lid for that?" (In the case of Pyrex, the answer is, "Ah. So that you don't have to waste aluminum foil for your leftovers." I don't have lids for my pans, darn it.) Well, it turns out that these lids are way, way more useful than I thought. When I made cookies for Valentine's Day, I made the frosting in the smallest of these bowls. That way we could just spread some frosting on before eating the cookies. It worked well. The frosting stayed smooth and soft, rather than dried out and crunchy. Just as good, no wasted aluminum foil for a top.
But the fun doesn't end there. I forgot to mention in my post the other day about the no-knead bread what to do to keep the bread moist while it's sitting out for a day. She of Northwest Edible Life said originally to spread it with some plastic wrap. Later on she mentioned that she'd stopped buying plastic wrap and had experimented with several alternatives. A tea towel didn't do well enough, but a plate was apparently perfect. Well, for me it was the largest size of my lidded mixing bowls that came to the rescue. It was the perfect tool for this job. Are you seeing where my shortsightedness with lids comes in? I would never have bought a mixing bowl with a lid for myself, but it has proven its worth. Never again (hopefully) will I discount or dismiss the humble lid. I'm even looking forward to finding new ways to prove myself wrong now.
On top of all this, as it turns out we've had almost all of these bowls in use at one point or another. It seems excessive, and ridiculous, even to me. But it's true. I did mention that big things don't get washed as frequently, right? It turns out my family might just know what I need better than I do.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Preserving the harvest

With all the excitement of planning my garden is also coming the preparations and planning for how I want to preserve the summer glut of food. After all, summer is short and winter is very long. I need to make the most of my little harvest so that, at the least, I can still have the tastes of summer during the year. Also, summer isn't just the time of gardening but also of hunting and fishing so that needs to be taken into account since we'll be storing that food right alongside the fruits and veggies.
One of the trickiest things, I think, is not knowing exactly what we'll need or how much of it. All I can do is base my planning on what we tend to eat. I'll probably come up short on a number of things, and I'll adjust my planning accordingly for the following year. However, everyone's food planning is an ongoing project. If you have kids, they're always growing and you'll suddenly find yourself needing more food than you thought you did. Or their tastes change and suddenly what they loved last week is vegetable non grata now. (Trust me, I know. I was one of those picky kids.) I'll never get things in the perfect quantities for what we want, but I can do my best. This will help me to be far less dependent on the industrial food system, and far less wasteful in terms of packaging. I'll mark everything which I can't get locally, but which we're not willing to give up yet. It's still important for me to buy them during their peak season (generally, summer) because, at the very least, they taste awful here in the winter. A peach picked green and sent here from South America is going to be as hard as a rock and tasteless. So when they come up in the summer, and they're at least from within the U.S., we buy them.
We don't have a dehydrator, so take my desire for dried fruits and fruit leather with a pinch of salt. I'll need to figure out if we can get or borrow a dehydrator, or if I can make a solar dehydrator this summer.
These are also just estimates based on what I'd like to get. Who knows how much that will actually be? 2011 was a bumper year for blueberries. This year could be a bust, so who knows? But this is what I'm aiming for.

Strawberries (as many locally as possible) - 4-5 gallons frozen, 7-10 pints jam
Blueberries - 4-5 gallons frozen, 10 pints jam, fruit leather and dried berries with any excess
Raspberries - 4-5 gallons frozen, jam with any excess (we still have some stored, and raspberry isn't my favorite jam)
Rhubarb - Canning as much as possible (any excess can go to friends), wine? (my MIL made rhubarb wine last summer and gave it away as gifts; it was pretty good)
Cranberries - 4-5 gallons frozen
Peaches (not local) - 10 quarts canned, 5 pints jam, 2-3 gallon freezer bags
Cherries (not local) - 15 quarts canned, 5 pints preserves, 2-3 gallon freezer bags, fruit leather or dried cherries if possible
Oranges (not local) - 5 pints marmalade (I know, I should be doing this now while they're in season!)
Apples (can be found locally, I guess) - At least 20 quarts applesauce, drying as much as possible, root cellaring some

Tomatoes - Canning as much as possible, drying about 3 gallon bags worth
Beans - 4 gallon bags frozen, try dilly beans (canned)
Peas - 5 gallon bags frozen, possibly some dried
Pumpkins/winter squash - Root cellar, freezing only after processing
Zucchini - Freezing as much as possible
Carrots - Freezing and root cellaring in about equal proportions
Celery - 4 gallon freezer bags
Parsnips - Root cellar, as many as possible
Cabbage - Root cellar, 4-5 large heads, or if they start to go bad then cooking and freezing
Broccoli - 2 gallon freezer bags
Potatoes - Root cellar, as many as possible (this year, keep a few apples with them)
Sweet potatoes - Root cellar, as many as possible
Turnips - Root cellaring 20-30
Cucumbers - Canned, as pickles, probably 5-7 pints

My plan with herbs is really just to dry whatever I have at the end of the summer. For basil, however, I love pesto and haven't had really good stuff in a while. I'm hoping that I can grow enough basil that making pesto would actually be worth it.

Salmon - Never a worry, since my in-laws fish. I might try to get a larger portion of canned salmon from my MIL, though, since I'm now armed with a few recipes for it. That would save room in the freezer, and we can always get more frozen from them on our bi-annual trips to visit them.
Moose - Hopefully the family gets another one!
Clams - I'm not sure what size my MIL freezes them in, but it's a good size for clam chowder. I have a few new things to try them in, too, so we could do with maybe 5-7 of the packs.

Whew! I just counted up some of this, and it's a lot of produce! Just the freezer stuff is about 40 gallon bags of things I want to put away. For the canned stuff, I've got at least 50 quarts and 32 pints. That's not counting the things for which I said "as much as possible", like the rhubarb. Will we have space enough for all of this? Maybe, and maybe not. I know that freezer space will be at a premium for us, but then again it always is. The only time that's bad is at the very end of summer, when things need to be frozen but it's not cold enough outside to just stick them in a cooler on the porch. We end up frantically trying to figure out how to cram just one more thing in the freezers, or having to eat something right away. However, some things which we typically freeze won't be frozen until later in the year--like the pumpkins and winter squash. They need to be baked or roasted first, and I make a meal out of whatever from that I need, then freeze the rest of the cooked "flesh" for other uses.
Seeing this is a wonderful incentive for us to eat as much of our stored produce (pretty much just zucchini, pumpkin, and rhubarb now) as we have left so that our freezer will definitely be empty enough for this. I also need to remind myself that if some of the amounts seem high, I want these things to take me through about 7 months of winter.
I depend very heavily on our freezers, which a lot of environmentalists and "preppers" and locavores would decry. an emergency, frozen food would actually be sort of a boon here. If anything happens here during the winter (like a power outage), our frozen food will stay frozen. Other stored foods would freeze too, in an extended power outage since our oil heater needs electricity to run. And if we must (or can, rather), then we can also shut off our freezer and take it outside to stay frozen. (And yes, it does seem silly to pay for freezing stuff when cold is free outside. But that's apartment life.) The only reason I don't rely on freezing even more is because our food-crazy dog would find a way to get into it somehow. For now, it makes one more reason to dream of having our own house. :)
Any and all gallon freezer bags I'm using in these totals are ones that we already have which I've been cleaning out and reusing. For some of the frozen stuff, such as zucchini, I was wondering if small canning jars might not be the better choice? We'll see how it all fits. Definitely for things in bags, the best storing option is to make them as flat as possible, which I'll remember to do this year. They stack better, it's easy to see what you have, and they fit nicely. No more playing freezer Jenga!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

If you're really lucky...

If you're really lucky, you have friends like mine who are amazing, and know you through and through. Friends who are willing to, say, get you a giant cast iron dutch oven as a birthday present.
Naturally, once you have said dutch oven you'll start looking for ways to use it. Julia Child's recipe for Boeuf Bourguinon? Stew? Soup? Heck, fondue? No, none of those is quite right for an inaugural run with the oven.
And stumble across something so amazing, so perfect, it's like a sign. An easy-as-can-be bread recipe that requires a dutch oven and basically no work to turn out an artisan loaf that will make people think you slaved over a hot oven to make it perfect. If you just happen to be going to the house of those same good friends for dinner, and the hostess just happens to have made chicken soup which would go perfectly with your bread, well then. You obviously have no choice but to share your new found knowledge and your loaf of beautiful, delicious bread.
As you can see, we came home with less than half a loaf left. I made it rather plain, half wheat/half white, and we couldn't get enough of it. I'm totally going to get the ingredients for the other blogger's suggestion of a rosemary and kalamata olive loaf. It sounds divine, and easy enough that it will be manageable even this week. ("The Music Man" opens next weekend, so we have rehearsals every night.)
Shane did ask me why I was making bread this way rather than my normal way and I said, "Because I get to use the dutch oven for this!" He answered, "Ah, you need to play with your new toy. Got it."
Our weekly total for this week was $32. It was all set to be only $22, but a certain husband made a midnight run to the store for snack foods this week. Fritos with cream cheese and salsa anyone? *Sigh*

Friday, March 9, 2012

Trying to pick up those odds and ends

I'm trying to recapture my excitement about some projects that have fallen by the wayside, before I get too excited about others. I have a bad habit of doing that, which is why my desk is like the Graveyard of Forgotten Projects. (And it's messy. Very, very messy.) Since Fairbanks tends to get March backwards (in like a lion, out like a lamb) this is the perfect time to sit at home and finish up those winter projects.
I don't usually watch that many movies and TV shows. We have a few shows that we watch on Hulu and such (mostly while working out), but for the most part we don't have that much (non-internet/work) screen time each week. Since we don't have TV access, we also tend to wait until the end of a season before renting/borrrowing from the library/begging friends for the DVD. We can almost always find what we want that way.
However, we do tend to watch shows and movies when we're doing other things. When Shane is making beer, we turn on a movie we've seen before. (Neither of us has bought a DVD in years, but we still have an extensive collection.) While I love having something to do with my hands during another activity, I find knitting and crocheting by themselves to be very boring except on very rare occasions when I have something big on my mind. (All right, the other exception is when the cat is stalking my yarn. That is quite entertaining.) I can't read while I knit (at least, not easily--trust me, I've tried!) but watching something while I knit is just about the perfect combination. So this week I've been watching more movies in an effort to get back into some of my knitting and crocheting projects. I'm finally making some progress on those socks I've been talking and writing about making for forever. They're looking great!
I also need to make more plarn hanging baskets for my plants from old plastic bags. While this isn't a project I've put off for too long, it is one that needs to be done soon so that we have enough space for all of the plants I want. And sort of alongside this, I need to actually turn all those plastic milk jugs I have sitting around into planters. It's just one of those small tasks that I've pushed off because I've been busy.
My goal of making sandwich wraps hasn't happened yet either. I've got the materials, but I haven't done anything with them. Part of this is because I don't have a sewing machine but since I know how to sew by hand, or could borrow time on a sewing machine (several friends have them, including my next-door neighbor), this is really nothing more than an excuse. I need to make some time for these soon. Summer is the season of sandwiches in our house. They're low-energy, quick, delicious, and they don't heat up the house. There. I've listed some good reasons to get my butt in gear on this project.
As if all of these projects weren't enough, in the next couple of months I need to start working on my spring/summer projects too. I need to find some more big things I can turn into planters for work, and some more tires (I'll be checking the transfer stations for those) or other good potato growing containers. I've been thinking about making a Value Village/Salvation Army run to see what I can find, too. I have a few things to donate anyway, so it can serve double duty. In addition to the planters, I'd love to find some metal spatulas for things like flipping pancakes. We only have plastic ones and they kind of suck. The grip part of the handle is coming off of one, and so it's always gross since food and dishwasher water can get stuck down in it. Another one Shane actually accidentally burned the handle off of by leaving it too close to a hot burner. It's about half as tall as it was. Which, I think, is as good a reason as any to not get plastic kitchen utensils. Anything that can potentially melt when it touches a hot surface is not really something I trust around my food.
I'm not worried about metal scraping off non-stick coating because we only have a few pans like that, and we tend not to use them that often. When we do, we only use wood or silicone utensils with them. For pancakes and bacon, nothing beats cast iron. We have a nice cast iron griddle that I use for our weekend breakfasts.
While I was watching movies and knitting one of the socks, Shane was next to me on his laptop applying for jobs. He told me he applied for one in Sydney, Australia, and in the same breath said, "I won't be getting this job, don't worry." An hour later, that comment was confirmed when he got a rejection email. He laughed about how quick the response was, until he realized that it was the middle of the work day for them. Still, he said, "It's like someone had their finger on the 'reject' button just waiting for my application." And I was totally thinking that this story was funny, until I saw it all typed up. Now it just seems sort of sad, and like a little portrait of the total job market at the moment. Don't worry, though, he applied for a bunch of other jobs. Hopefully something turns up.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chicken noodle pea casserole

It's an ungainly title for a dish that is absolutely amazing. My mom made up this recipe a while ago, so I don't feel at all bad about sharing it. It's been a family favorite for a long, long time. I introduced Shane to it and he requests it rather frequently. From the title, you know most of what's in it already.

Chicken Noodle Pea Casserole:
One whole chicken breast
3-4 carrots
2 cloves garlic
Farfalle (bow-tie) pasta, or another shaped bulk pasta (like penne)
Vegetable or chicken stock--maybe 12 oz? I just add until it looks right
Cream cheese (about one package)
Salt, pepper

First, start some water boiling for your noodles and toss them in when it's ready.
Cut up a whole chicken breast and brown in olive oil, salt, and pepper. When it's nearly done, add in some chopped garlic. When the garlic and chicken are cooked through, add diced or grated carrots (I usually go with diced because I find it easier, but my mom always grates them) and cook until the carrots have softened a bit. Transfer to a bowl and pour in frozen peas. (Or fresh, if you have them.)
In the pan, deglaze it (bring up the chicken and vegetable parts that have cooked onto it) with some vegetable or chicken broth, then add 8 ounces of cream cheese. Mix the cheese around until it's totally melted into the stock. Then add back the vegetables and chicken mix, stirring around until it's incorporated into the sauce. Don't worry if it's watery, though! It's supposed to be because you still need to add the noodles once they're done cooking. They are? Oh good! Add those to the mix. Done. If we have parmesan on hand, I grate a bunch on top before I serve it. But if we don't happen to have parmesan, I don't worry about it. It's fantastic either way.
As I said, this is a family favorite. It's so fast and easy that it's no trouble to throw together on a weeknight. In fact, it's easy enough to make even if we've got something going on in the evening. And we fight over the leftovers.
If/when my peas start producing, this is one of the recipes I'm looking forward to using them in. With my own peas, pasta in bulk, and making my own stock and cream cheese, this will be a yummy zero waste recipe.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Here's another perspective on zero waste. At times on her blog, Bea can make it seem so simple and easy to go zero waste. I end up thinking, "Well, yeah, if you're in California and you have access to Whole Foods and a year-round farmer's market...." So it's nice to get the perspective of someone else who's struggling with trying to drastically reduce the waste in their lifestyle. There are so many times when I basically have to grin and bear it, and buy something that's packaged in a way I don't like. But the author of the above article suggests that we also need to take a closer look at what actually constitutes waste.
Here's another idea about food storage without using a refrigerator, which really isn't the best way to keep food a lot of the time. Don't get me wrong, it's great for things like milk, but vegetables and even eggs aren't at their best when stored in a refrigerator. We've had eggs get frozen if they're accidentally pushed to the back. (Fresh eggs, if they've never been refrigerated, can be kept safely without refrigeration longer than you think. One source I've read says about 6 weeks, which was a number she'd gotten from a Mennonite farmer. I'm not sure how true that is, though, having never tested it myself.) And delicate fruits and veggies, such as tomatoes, are incredibly prone to getting essentially a mild form of freezer burn, even just in the fridge.
I did always wonder about people who've managed to get rid of their refrigerators (most use an ice-box instead) or switch to a small dorm-style refrigerator (which isn't as efficient as you'd hope--if you need that, you might as well get a large one). I assumed that most of them must eat out most of the time. This is proof that even people who cook at home can switch to a smaller fridge (or get rid of it entirely) without reducing their quality of eating and without getting rid of all refrigerated items. I'd still need somewhere to store leftovers, and the loss of freezer space would suck, but I could maybe see myself trying something like this in the future. Especially during the winter. It seems silly to pay for refrigeration when it would make much more sense to simply store stuff in an ice box in the coldest part of the garage and shove our freezer outside for cold. (Keeping it in the freezer would insulate it somewhat from the temperature swings.) Could I see Shane going along with it? Maybe. I think it would mostly depend on how much work for it he had to do. :) If I took care of all of it, he'd be very happy with it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The simplest coffee ever

I have to give kudos to my brother-in-law's girlfriend for this one. Shane loves coffee, but he also tends to suffer from acid reflux and heartburn. Coffee has always made this worse, but he never wanted to give it up. Then, Megan mentioned that she'd heard cold-pressed coffee has little to no acid in it, unlike regular brewed coffee, and that it might be easier on his stomach.
It is. And it's ridiculously simple, so Shane has switched to only making coffee this way. And since it's brewed in the fridge, it's very low-resource. (After all, we'd have the fridge running anyway.) The ratio is half a pound of ground coffee for every gallon of water. Put those in a jug (we have some big glass jugs, which are only 2/3 of a gallon so Shane changes the proportions to match) and place in the fridge. They stay there anywhere from 3 days to a week to "brew". Then Shane filters out the coffee grounds. He uses a regular coffee filter, which we already had from our old coffeemaker (I'll probably get him to use our cheesecloth instead when those run out) inside a fine wire strainer, and it drips the coffee into a juice container before transferring it back to a clean glass jar for storage in the fridge. That's it.
It's a coffee concentrate, so it needs to be watered down. Depending on how strong you like your coffee, 1/4-1/3 of the cup should be the cold pressed coffee and the rest should be water. Iced coffee is easy enough because all you need is tap (or filtered, if that's your preference) water and some ice. For hot coffee, just heat up some water before adding it to the coffee concentrate. It's easy enough that the non-coffee drinker in our household (me) will often make the coffee on weekends when I hear him waking up.
The best part is that, since he started using this method, Shane's stomach problems have nearly gone away. Isn't it funny how one simple change can affect everything else?

Also, after my post yesterday about how much I love my walk, I woke up this morning to at least 6 inches of fresh snow, and plenty more falling. (The storm advisory yesterday said 2-4 inches. Ha!) When I let the dog out, all she could see was a wall of white and she looked back at me like, "Where do you expect me to go?" It was miserable to walk in. Not the falling snow so much (although, having that blow into my face wasn't fun) but the deep snow. Even most of the roads weren't plowed yet, let alone the sidewalks. I could have easily twisted an ankle because I could never see where the curbs ended. I got to work 15 minutes late. At least I have an understanding boss!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why your car is less efficient than walking

People, even people who live here, are always surprised by the fact that I walk places year-round. Shock, admiration, concern...and among all of it, no one seems to realize exactly how much I'm saving in terms of effort, energy, stress, and money.
Don't get me wrong, the car is a great invention. For long distances, it can be great. But just to get around town, it kind of sucks. Even--and perhaps especially--in the winter. Why? Because it really does take up more of your time than walking.
People tend to only think of their vehicles as a time-saving device. After all, you can get from here to there so much faster. But there are all sorts of external costs to owning and running a vehicle which, when taken into account, lead me to realize that my truck really doesn't save me time in most cases. For one thing, there's the time it takes to fill up the tank. Yes, I can do this when I'm getting groceries. Or on my way out of my neighborhood, since there's a gas station two blocks away from me. But it still takes time, and that's still time that's spent doing nothing for me. If you put gas in your car once each week, how much time are you spending? Ten minutes? That's about an hour of your life right there, just getting gas for a year. If you have to go out of your way for gas, how much more time is that?
You also have to get your car checked and your fluids changed regularly. The average is about every three months. If you do it yourself, you're still spending some of your valuable time changing the oil or otherwise maintaining your vehicle. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather spend that time doing something I actually like to do. Even if you like working on mechanical things, does it ever just seem like one more chore you need to complete? And this is all without taking into account the bigger repairs which your vehicle will inevitably need. What if you get into an accident? You must admit, car accidents are not outside the realm of possibility, since there are so many every year. Even minor accidents cause all kinds of problems, and it's more time you need to spend on something car-related. What if you're injured in that accident and need to take some time off work? How efficient is all of that, really?
In Alaska, in the winter, you need to plug in your vehicle. This takes only a few minutes, but it does add to the total time required to maintain your vehicle. In addition, you need to start your car early to give it some time to warm up. I realized a while ago that, even were I so inclined to drive the couple of miles to work, I'd have to wake up earlier to start the truck in enough time to get it warmed up than I do just to walk.
In addition to all of this, you need to remember that all of this costs money. Money for gas (how expensive is it in your area right now?), money for the electricity to plug it in, or for the land to have a garage (and here, the heat for that garage), money for the parts and the repairs and the insurance. Raise your hand if you have to, or would have to, pay for parking? (Mine's up.) Calculate how much money you spend each year on your car. Then figure out how much of your work time it takes to earn that much money. Do you still think your car is worth it? How much could you save by walking or biking somewhere once each week, rather than driving? How much more could you put into your kid's college fund, or toward your mortgage? Is it still worth it?
Yes, it takes an hour each day for me to walk to and from work. But I love my walks. Instead of sitting in a cold vehicle, I warm up as I walk. I wake up, too. I'm doing my health a huge favor. I'm saving money. I'm acclimated to my environment, far more than people who only go from warm house to warm vehicle to warm office. (No wonder they complain so bitterly about the cold. If you live in Fairbanks, get over it. It's cold here. Accept that.) I get to enjoy nature, and the beauty around me. For people who drive, do you really get to enjoy the stars, or the sunrise? Do you get to stop and just say, "Oh!" because the view before you is breathtakingly, startlingly beautiful? I do. I get to see the Northern Lights on my rambles, and have enough time to stop and stare in awe as they dance above me.
I'm not ready to give up a vehicle entirely. It is useful. For some things, I use it simply because I'd be seen as far too odd to do the most logical and useful thing. (I could carry groceries home on a sled instead of taking the truck, but people would probably find me very odd and I haven't quite gotten over that yet.) Getting across town to see friends would be more difficult. But we use our vehicle less than half as much as most people do, and we don't feel a lack. When we do drive, there are almost always at least two people.
Anything you can do to make yourself less dependent upon your vehicle will ultimately save you time. If you can bike, great. Especially if you're the type who "never has time" to work out. You're doing that during your morning commute! If your only option is public transportation, go for it! The last summer I lived in Washington, I lived with my parents in an area outside of Seattle but worked in the city. I had about 45 minutes on the bus each way, but I kind of loved it. It gave me time to read and listen to my music. (The music mostly gave me an excuse to ignore creepy men who tried to speak to me.) I read so many books that summer, the bulk of them on my commute.
And I do realize that there are some lifestyles that don't make it feasible to walk, bike, or take public transportation. My dad works in Seattle, and it would take him about an hour and a half to bike, or three different buses. So he's found a friend to carpool with. Wherever you are, there's a solution that will make you less dependent on your car.
In other (personal) news, our weekly total for last week was $107. Ick. Summer, with all its bounty, cannot arrive fast enough. I'm ready to start producing my own food again, pronto.

Blueberry Delight

I mentioned the other day that Shane's not a huge fan of cake. So I never make it for his birthday. Instead, I ask him what he wants. Both this year and last year the answer has been "That blueberry stuff, please!" The recipe comes from his mom (who got it from her friend, who heard about it from....) and now I'm sharing it with you in two forms. There's the actual recipe I was given, and the zero-waste, whole foods recipe. Please, however, forgive me. I can't remember a lot of the amounts for things and at this point the recipe is just in my head.

Blueberry Delight

Graham crackers (about two packets?)
Melted butter

Crush the graham crackers, or put them through a food processor until they're in tiny pieces.
Mix with just enough melted butter to form a graham cracker crust. Press into the bottom of a 9x13 baking pan.
Open a few cans of blueberry pie filling. Pour the blueberries on top of the crust.
Next, mix two packages of cream cheese with two cups of Cool Whip and one cup of sugar. Mix until it's no longer lumpy, then smear over the blueberry concoction.
If desired, you can crush more graham crackers and pour over the top for garnish. Put in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours or until cold.

Here's the zero waste/whole foods recipe:
Several days beforehand, make graham crackers. Then make the graham cracker crust as before.
Pour 1 large bag of frozen blueberries into a pan, adding a little bit of water, a small amount of corn starch, and 1/4 cup of sugar, until it forms a syrup-y, thick-ish consistency.
Make whipped cream: 1 carton of heavy cream, whip it until it's forming peaks and it's the consistency of whipped cream. Add some homemade cream cheese to it, and 1/2 cup of sugar. Whip together until it's no longer lumpy and press into a pan as with the other recipe.

The other serving option: instead of putting it all in one big pan (since Shane snacked on the graham crackers, and I wasn't sure I'd have enough for that) I made individual portion sizes in our custard cups. It was surprisingly easy, and I didn't think it was much more work to do it that way than in the big one. They were a big hit! We invited a few friends over before going out (costume karaoke at the Pub!) and this made handing out dessert and then cleaning up super easy. (In our house, big dishes and pans can sometimes sit in the sink for a while, waiting for someone to finally give in and clean them. Small ones are super easy to put in the dishwasher so they get cleaned faster.) Besides, did I mention that they were cute?
Before you start to think that I'm some sort of ridiculous superwoman (that would be soooo the wrong impression), I didn't actually end up making it all the second way. I wanted to, but didn't. For one thing, we already had cream cheese in the fridge. For another, I found some Cool Whip in our freezer from my over-estimation last year of how much we'd need. So the only parts that were really homemade were the blueberry part and the graham crackers, but I think that's enough for now. Shane was, as usual, baffled about why I went to the trouble of making something as basic as graham crackers. I reminded him that we're not giving gifts to each other, so this is my way of showing my love and appreciation for him.
So there you go. An easy (even when you do everything from scratch, since you can spread it out over time), delicious dessert that's always a hit. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bread Tutorial II - Bagels

I'm not going to lie. Making bagels is a little bit of work. With regular bread, you can just start it rising and mostly forget about it for a while. Bagels take a little bit more hands-on time. But they're so worth it. Shane has been begging me to make them for weeks, so I finally did. The recipe is one I got from a friend, who not only has a culinary degree but who used to work at our local bagel shop: Lulu's Bagels. It took him a while to write down the recipe because he had to convert it in his head, down from a starting point of 50 lbs of flour to a more reasonable amount for a home cook.

2 cups of warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast
1-2 tablespoons of brown sugar

Just as with the liquid for all other yeast breads, it should be warm but touchable. If it's going to scald your finger, it's too hot for the yeast. Mix the water, yeast, and sugar and let the yeast proof for about five minutes, until it's puffy. Then mix in enough flour to have a dough that's still somewhat tacky to the touch. At this point, you could also mix in any spices (cinnamon, sage, etc.) that you'd like. For a dough like this, "to taste" is your guiding measure for spices. If you want lots of cinnamon, several teaspoons works. If you just want a hint, maybe you only want half a teaspoon.
Turn the dough out and knead it for a couple of minutes. Oil it, put it back in the bowl, and let it rise until doubled.
When it's risen, turn it out and give it a quick kneading. Just a few turns should be fine, but it's easier to work with if the air bubbles are mostly gone. If you want to add any dried fruit, this is the point I do it at. It's easier to work them into the bagels when you're forming them, I've found. For my purposes, I made a double batch and only added cherries to half the dough, so if you think you see two different types of dough, you do.

You'll want to pinch off a bit of dough, about the size of a mandarin orange.

Then, you'll need to start rolling out the dough into a rope about 7-10 inches long.

I'm sure you can figure out the next step. Take the ends and sort of wrap them around each other, leaving a nice big hole in the middle. Make sure the ends are firmly together, though, because you don't want them to come apart in the next steps.

Put them on a flat, greased surface (such as a baking sheet) to rise for just a short time. About half an hour should do it. Don't worry if they don't look big at that point. They'll puff up later, when they're boiled. That's right, you'll need to boil them. I've done this in a number of different pots, but the best one is a wide, low pot. You don't need a lot of water, just enough to have them floating in it and wide so that they have plenty of space. It should also have a lid, to keep the moisture in. A tall pot will work too, but it will be harder to get the bagels in and out.
Once your half hour is up, and the water is boiling (it doesn't have to be at a rolling boil, but it does need to be hot) gently lift the bagels and drop them into the water. See why the ends need to be firmly attached? I tend to use a large spatula (the same one I use for pancakes) to lift them. I can use the same tool to gently lift them out of the water when they're done being boiled. Whatever side was down on the greased sheet is the side I want down in the water. The first time I made bagels, I flipped them to make sure both sides were boiled equally. The second time, I realized that wasn't necessary. Keep the lid on while the bagels are in the pot and the top will cook well enough while still looking nice.

How long will you need to boil them for? That depends on how chewy you want the bagels to be. If you don't like a lot of chewiness, less time is preferable. So play around. I don't actually time it, but I boil mine for about five minutes. This gives them a fantastic chewiness without making them actually tough to eat.
After they've been boiled, you'll see how much the water has puffed them up. They'll pretty much double in size. (This picture doesn't do it justice. Trust me, the ones on the left are waaaaay bigger.)

They're obviously not totally done when they're done boiling, though. After that they'll need to be put into a 375^ oven for about half an hour, or until golden brown. (This is where the already greased baking sheets come in handy--the bagels won't stick.) Give them a few minutes to cool when they're out of the oven, then devour. Because they are a bit of work, I do tend to make a double batch all at once so that I can freeze some. It's not much more work to make two batches than one, and this way you also don't need to feel obligated to eat bagels every day so they don't go bad.

Friday, March 2, 2012

More plants and food: happiness, sadness, and hilarity

My Independence Days update has mostly to do with plants this week, because this week has been big for my little world of plants. First of all, since I've been feeling so down this week I decided to do something within my power to try to improve our situation at least a tiny bit. So I do what I usually do: I planted. I've been thinking that I needed new dirt (expensive!) before I realized that I have a few pots in the garage with dirt. It's already been planted in at least once, and it was hard, but it should be ok. I added my last little bit of bagged dirt on top to get some fresh nutrients for my seeds and sprinkled some oregano and thyme seeds in the pots. Covered with old plastic bags, they should sprout in a few days.
At work, I started some seeds (using the last of the dirt I keep there) for two tomatoes. I don't have big pots for them yet, but I can at least start them in my old, saved-up yogurt containers. The most important thing is getting them started so that I can have them producing for as along as possible.
And my jalapeno plant started putting out new flowers! I have no idea if it will actually fruit again, but wouldn't that be lovely?
We have a lot more space at work now because on Wednesday I finally had to give the Botanical Gardens their plants back. It wasn't nearly as many as I was thinking (about six orchids, one of which I killed, one begonia, one enormous old jade, one vine, one amaryllis--which bloomed the day I gave it back!--and one palm tree stem, because I'd killed that too) but it does make a huge visual difference since several of the plants were so big. I'm trying not to be sad about it. I got really attached to some of those plants, particularly the begonia and the jade. But I do have snippets from each of them (in the case of the jade, if all the starts I have turn into full plants we'll have about ten of them) so they're living on in my office. And I got to impress the botanist with my skill at nursing the begonia back to health. :)
Besides, this just means that I have more space in which to put my own plants. The top of the reference shelves are free, the top of the microfiche cabinet, and I've scoped out some new places in which I think it might be ok to put plants. So we'll see just how much produce I can grow in a library! My peas are shooting up quickly, already wrapping little vines around the cages, and my bean plant has two full leaves with more on the way.
The hilarity with my plants is because of the process of returning the jade plant. Just so you understand, this plant is taller than I am. (Which, admittedly, isn't very tall.) It's rather wide around, and it's very fragile. Jade plants don't normally live for the 35+ years that this one has, at least not in, er, captivity. It's starting to rot in places (normal for its age--I was worried I'd done something wrong!--it just needs to be pruned back) and the new branches are putting out roots to indicate that it would like to be lots of little plants rather than one large one. (That's pretty much exactly what the Botanical Gardens lady told me.) So moving it, even just to the other end of the building, was difficult. We couldn't carry it, and neither of us had a hand truck to use. (Ours is filled with boxes of books, theirs had gone mysteriously missing the day before.) So she grabbed the wheeled platform out from under one of their garbage cans and we had to move the jade onto that. Then I pushed, and she pulled, and we started it moving. But the pot is not as large as you'd expect for a plant that size, so we were sort of crab-walking it through the hallways. I mentioned that I felt like one of those characters in a cartoon who tries to hide behind a plant which they move around for cover. (This might have popped into my head because I'd re-watched "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" the day before.) On top of all of this, because it is so fragile, any bump in the path (like the rug in the library to capture dirt and snow) shook the plant and dead leaves and rotted branches would rain down on us. So we left a very clear path in fallen plant detritus behind us. We were both laughing most of the way up the hallway. And I got a few new branches to start in water as new plants as a result.
As far as food this week, my feeling of poverty really came into play there. I really did my best to look through our stored food to see what we could/should eat. Thankfully, this is resulting in a couple of wonderful things. The first: my birthday dinner. We had everything we needed (except the mushrooms) for moose stroganoff, which Shane makes and I love. So that's what I requested. I made the sour cream for it on Wednesday evening, for which I'm feeling rather proud. (Shane laughed at me, because his recipe calls for canned cream of chicken soup. "Why bother making sour cream when we're using preservative-laden canned soup?" Answer: "Because I can!") We ate salmon, and we have many more yummy (and frugal) things on our list, like moose roast. I made graham crackers, I made yogurt, I made apple scones. (I probably won't be making those last again. They were all right, but just all right.) Finally, I made zucchini brownies for a charity auction at the Pub. I actually found the recipe because I was looking for a brownie recipe without butter! (Other than what we have in the butter dish, we're out.) At some point, I'll have to make them for myself so I can actually tell you if they're good or not. The batter was certainly yummy.
One more sad thing for food: we're running out of usable potatoes. They're still technically edible, but at this point they're all sprouting and getting soft. When they start, the sprouts start to eat up the sugars in the potato so they're not as good. It also uses a lot of moisture, so the last time I made baked fries they turned out very dry. I pulled the last few ones I'll want to use (for some reason, the blues seem to store the best, with the whites a close second and the reds dead last) and have them sitting (de-sprouted) with our apples so that they'll keep a bit longer. The rest can cannibalize each other (seriously, the sprouted roots are latching onto the other potatoes) and I'll plant them as soon as possible this summer.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A book I must get

I found a library book the other day entitled "Cooking Alaskan". It's old, and as a library book it's obviously been well loved. But I flipped through it and pretty much my first thought was, "Holy cow, this is a goldmine! Where can I get a copy?" And then I realized that, duh, I was holding a library book. So I checked it out. However, depending on how well we like the recipes, one day I might actually want my own copy. We'll see.
This book is the only one I can think of (there are probably a few more, but I've never encountered them) in which you'll find recipes for things like fried walrus liver, or how to render seal oil. It also has a handy guide to substitutions:
"Bear, whale and beaver may be prepared by any pork recipe. Moose, buffalo, or walrus may be prepared by following directions for beef. Rabbit, squirrel and muskrat (after soaking) may be cooked like chicken. Caribou, deer and reindeer may be done according to lamb or mutton recipes."
It has all sorts of recipes for plants you might not otherwise think are edible: willow buds, woolly lousewort (sounds appealing, right?), spruce. Not to mention recipes for basically any animal in the state, including porcupine, beaver, muskrat, ptarmigan, rabbit, moose, caribou, bear, walrus, salmon, trout, halibut.... In the back is a handy guide for gardeners about which plants grow best, how to store them (mostly root cellaring for things that grow well around here), and which edible wild plants can be successfully cultivated in your yard or garden, such as wild cranberries. Then it has even more recipes on how to cook all of this.
This is like the Bible of Alaskan local cooking. Why have I never found this before?! While some of it might seem like a joke to some ("Cooking squirrel or muskrat, are they crazy?"), and while I definitely won't be trying some of the more off-the-wall recipes (we don't have bear, seal, and walrus meat, and I don't think we care to), it is still a fantastic resource. One of the first pages I flipped to has "Slow-Cooker Meatballs" made with moose. It sounds yummy. We'll have to give this one a try soon!
The clam and salmon recipes will also come in very handy. No, I won't make "Tomato Clam Aspic". But I am willing to give "Clam Suey" a try! Or "Sourdough Clam Fritters".
The one recipe I have already tried was "salmon cakes". Basically just crab cakes, only with salmon instead. Tuesday night's supper was baked salmon (sprinkled with lemon pepper) and mashed potatoes. (I used mashed sweet and regular potatoes.) So last night, I mixed the leftovers together, added an egg, some chopped chives from my plant, and some bread crumbs. Then I fried them in a little bit of oil. We had asparagus (from HG Market) as a side, and Shane made some tartar sauce to go with the cakes (mayo, ground mustard, dill, relish, and lemon juice). We both declared them amazing, and worth repeating.
After dinner, Shane picked up the dog and said, "I'm very sorry, little one, but you won't be getting any more salmon leftovers. You'll have to be content with the skins." I think she knew the whole time I was making them, because she kept staring at me like, "Mom, what are you doing? Those are my leftovers!"
Speaking of which, here's a picture of her waiting for salmon on Tuesday night:

She its up as straight as possible, like a little kid trying to show off how good she's being, and tries to mesmerize us into giving fish to her. How can you resist those sad eyes?
Anyway, I can't wait to dig into this book and mine it for all the recipes we'll truly enjoy.