Posts Tagged ‘frugality’

Washing, peeling, chopping, and bagging fifty pounds of mangoes gives a girl a lot of time to think.


I was thinking about why, exactly, I would wash, peel, chop, bag, and freeze fifty pounds of mangoes.  On top of twenty pounds of blueberries, and as many sweet cherries, plus the peas, and the beans and peaches and other produce that’s still to come.  And the canning and dehydrating and cheese making and all the rest.  One friend asked if I was getting ready for the Zombie Apocalypse.


It’s not about the zombie apocalypse.  Honest.  There are a lot of very vocal, very well-armed people on some of the forums I frequent, who are waiting (somewhat impatiently) for the collapse of society and ensuing zombie invasion.  I don’t really get that attitude.  First, I like modern conveniences like, say, medical care, running water, and sewer systems.  Secondly, I’m not that fond of guns.  Besides that, society in my particular corner of the world shows no signs of imminent collapse, thank goodness.  I like my neighbours.  I’d hate to see them shuffling up my driveway with arms suspiciously raised out front, clamoring for brains…


I do happen to like having control over what I eat.  When I dehydrate mangoes, I know that no chemicals made their way in.  Same with making my own jam:  fruit-pectin-sugar is okay; fruit-flavor-color-glucose-fructose-preservatives is not really my cup of tea.  I like growing organic peas and carrots and potatoes; these are things that will be made into baby food for our little guy, not to mention nourishing ourselves.


I am also cheap.  I like things like blueberry smoothies, and at $2 per pound (what I paid for the ones I froze myself), I have no problem making blueberry smoothies three times a week.   At $7+ for 600 grams, blueberry smoothies would be rationed for special occasions.  Jam is five bucks for a little jar of the decent stuff, these days; chokecherry and crabapple jelly cost me about fifty cents for the sugar in an eight-pint batch, plus a couple of enjoyable hours of picking and canning.


I like to be ready for various eventualities.  I keep a well-stocked pantry, which saves on time and gas for last-minute runs to town for forgotten ingredients, saves us money (by buying in bulk), and gives us a cushion for those times when the paycheque, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite stretch to the end of the month.  More than once, I’ve had to rely on the pantry when I was unable to work for periods of time, and I think unemployment is something everybody could potentially face at some point.


We also have things like an epi-pen to treat severe allergic reactions, even though neither of us has a life-threatening allergy.  A few of our friends do have serious allergies, though, and we’re a long way from the hospital.  We are not, however, armed to the teeth awaiting a zombie invasion.  We occasionally get accused of survivalism, which, to be honest, isn’t really our cup of tea.  Too much emphasis on guns and zombies, and not enough on gardening, canning, milking goats, and hanging out with the neighbours.


While we are not survivalists, I do buy into the philosophy of preparedness.  I think there are plenty of legitimate reasons to have a few extra things on hand.  Things like flashlights, candles, a couple of sleeping bags, a jug or three of water.  A wind-up radio.  Extra food.  A camp stove.  A first aid kit.  You know – basic supplies for run-of-the-mill emergencies.


So far this year, we’ve been through a couple of minor power outages, a medical issue causing my inability to work for a couple of months, being snowed in for a couple days, that big wind and four-day electricity interruption, and a boil water advisory.  But no zombies.  We’ve got fifty pounds of mango in the freezer, now, and there’s still hope for the garden.   For the likely scenarios for emergencies around here, we’re fairly well prepared.  For the Zombie Apocalypse, not so much…


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How to Eat Real Food:


1) go to the fridge

2) take out a carrot

3) scrub the carrot

4) eat it.


Okay, okay, it’s not as simple as that.  But it doesn’t have to be much more complicated.


I normally eat a lot of whole grains and vegetables, and usually cook from scratch.  A couple of weeks ago, I was sent on training for work, though, and was forced to eat my lunches at restaurants.  All of a sudden, I had terrible heartburn, all the time.  Like sleep-sitting-up heartburn.  I know heartburn is common during pregnancy, and just figured it was another new symptom to contend with.  Except….


Except that a week later, after reverting to my normal eating habits, I don’t have heartburn anymore.  Even after eating a (home-made) refried bean burrito with sour cream, extra cheese, and super-spicy salsa.  I can have a cup of coffee in the morning if I want.  Chili doesn’t make me suffer.  It appears that I am safe, as long as I avoid restaurants or pre-packaged crap.  Not too difficult, for me, and better for my (and baby’s) health anyhow.   I wish I knew what was in those soup-and-sandwich lunches, though…


In discussing this with friends, though, I get the usual refrain:  “Oh, that’s awesome, but I don’t have time to cook”.  Or, “It’s too expensive to eat healthy like that”.   Not to put too fine a point on it, but bullshit.  This is a real pet peeve of mine.


I’ve been doing this for, oh, more than a decade.  Creeping up on two, as a matter of fact.  My mom cooked like this, as well, even as a single working mom raising two kids.  It’s not that hard.  Nor that expensive.  It’s just that people hear that, then start to repeat it to themselves, without ever really checking the math.


There are a couple of secrets that make it cheap and easy to eat real food.


1) Cook lots

2) Use meat as a seasoning, if you use it at all.

3) Eat seasonally



Cooking Lots


When I cook, it is usually in my stock pot.  It’s a big pot – it probably holds a couple of gallons.  I rarely fill it less than halfway.  It takes almost the same amount of time to make a pot of soup for twelve as it does to make a pot of soup for four.  So, in a household of two, I cook for twelve, then I cook much less often.  When we were both working full time, I normally cooked a big pot of soup or chili on Saturday, a big pot of pasta on Sunday, and something simple and easy like stir-fry or pizza or veggie burritos once or twice during the week.  It worked out to cooking every other day, or less.  The other days were leftover days.


Those big pots of stuff I cooked on the weekends would be divided in half – half went in the fridge for leftover days, and the other half were portioned out into lunch-sized containers, which I took to work and re-heated in the microwave.  I was always eating a week or two behind my cooking dates, so I was having chicken soup and spaghetti and meat sauce for lunches, even though that week I’d cooked beef stew and chili for the weekday meals.  I had plenty of variety.  Based on my co-workers, who spend about ten dollars (on average) for lunch, I figure I am saving around $200 per month on lunches alone.  That makes it pretty easy to justify buying organic apples and yoghurt, and also makes me wonder how people can possibly think that it’s ‘too expensive’ to cook from scratch.  Most of my meals probably cost a buck or two per serving, tops.


Use Meat As Seasoning


Yes, it is going to cost you a fortune to cook from scratch at home, if you expect to eat steak or roast or boneless skinless chicken breast at every meal.   But that’s not necessary.  In most of my meals, a pound of ground beef would serve at least ten or twelve.  For instance, when I make chili, I use easily double (maybe triple) the amount of beans that most people might, and no-one ever notices.  Not even my (then) hardcore carnivore husband.  Likewise, when we make shepherd’s pie, we add 50% vegetables (peas, carrots, onions, corn) to the meat, then smother it in potatoes, making a pound of beef stretch into a large meal.  In my favorite vegetable chowder soup recipe, I use about six strips of bacon in a pot of soup that would heartily feed a dozen people.  Meat does not have to be the main attraction.   In fact, meat may not even have to put in an appearance.  Probably half of our favorite meals are vegetarian.  There are dozens of pasta recipes that use no meat.  I love to eat roasted root vegetables served over couscous.  Refried bean burritos make regular appearances on our dinner table.  We do eat steak, but rarely.  When $5 worth of ground beef makes ten or twelve servings, it’s pretty hard to argue that cooking healthy meals at home is expensive.


Eat Seasonally


Last week, when I went to the grocery store, I noticed that blueberries cost almost $5 for a little clamshell package with maybe a handful of berries in it.  Back in August, I was buying them for just over a dollar a pound.  Right now, carrots, apples, and cabbage are cheap, and strawberries, spinach, and watermelon are expensive.  Guess what we’re eating lots of right now?  Of course, having had a big garden, we’ve got lots of ‘winter veggies’ in our root cellar, but that is also a good measure of what’s seasonal here at this time of year.   For us, eating seasonally means root veggies, cabbage, and squash in winter, and peas, green beans, and corn in the summer.


Of course, you can get around this, too, if you’re willing to invest a bit of labor.  In the fall, when the sweet corn was ripening, we bought six dozen cobs from a guy down the road.  We brought it home, blanched it, cut it off the cobs, packaged it in one- and two-cup bags, and froze it.  I think it worked out to something like 40 cents a cup, for local, probably organic, sweet corn.   Now, in the dead of winter, we’re making corn chowder with it, and it’s fantastic.  I have no idea what a bag of organic frozen corn costs these days, but I’ll bet it’s not that cheap.  We also froze a lot of blueberries back in August, which we use to make smoothies now, in the middle of winter, rather than paying that outrageous price for fresh ones.  It does take some time – that corn took the two of us most of an afternoon – but that’s a trade-off we’re happy to make.  It was an afternoon of chatting and laughing, despite the work involved.


This is not rocket science, but a lot of people have never done the math for themselves.  It takes me as long to slap together a stir fry as it would to run out for fast food, even when we lived in town – I can whip up a decent meal in half an hour.  It often takes me longer to think up what I’m going to make than it does to actually cook it.  Now, I’ve been cooking from scratch for a long time, and practice makes it all go faster.  I remember Hubby taking for-ev-er to chop an onion back when we first started dating – he was out of practice.  Now, it takes him seconds.  Even accounting for that extra time, though, it was more economical, in time and money, for him to make spaghetti at home than to go out for a pizza.  It makes me shake my head when someone tries to assert that cooking from scratch is too time-consuming, or, worse, too expensive, to bother with.

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…as in the weather has been hot.  Damn hot.  And surprisingly humid, for a part of the world that normally sees around 16 inches of precipitation…annually.   While it is not as hot as, say, Cairo (37), or Seville (38), or even Atlanta (34) or Houston (33), the temperatures have been up there, lately.  Today, our thermometer read 30 degrees for most of the day, and Environment Canada indicated that our humidity was around 50%, adding at least five degrees to the “feels like” temperature.


Our house, being of late-50’s vintage, and having never even had the kitchen linoleum updated, let alone the climate control system, has no air conditioning.  I actually don’t mind this too much, since a/c always makes me feel sick, with a scratchy sore throat and a headache.  Even though Hubby’s car has air, we normally just roll down the windows.  We’re such Luddites…


Since the heat effectively grounds the mosquitoes, Hubby says he does not mind it at all, and he has been out working in the garden the last couple of days.  This afternoon, I took him out a big ole bottle of homemade iced tea, to help stave off heat exhaustion.  I stayed to supervise the weeding for awhile, and  got myself a bit of a sunburn…unusual, considering the tan I have acquired this year – one of the better ones I have had since I came back from North Africa.  Turns out, one of the latest meds has photosensitivity as a side effect, I (somewhat belatedly) discovered.


While I was in North Africa, I made a bunch of discoveries about coping with heat.  I got so good at it that even the locals in Aswan in southern Egypt shook their heads and called me crazy when I set out on a ten kilometer uphill walk on a 45 degree day.  I was fine, I might add, though I drank over 5 liters of water in just under 6 hours.  What I discovered is that salt, sugar, and caffeine are your friends.   The salt replaces what you sweat out…it may sound counter-intuitive, but you need salt in your system to keep your cells hydrated.  The caffeine helps with that droopy feeling you get when you are too warm – it constricts your blood vessels, which tend to relax in the heat and slow your circulation, making you feel sluggish.  The sugar is a quick energy boost when your body is too hot to put much effort into real digestion.  Then, you need water.  Lots and lots of pure water.  Liters of it, consumed a sip here and a swallow there, before you actually feel thirsty, because in real heat, by the time you feel really thirsty, you will have a hard time getting enough water in you to compensate for what you are losing in sweat.


Another trick is to hold your hands in cold water up to the wrists, or soak your feet.


Having never lived in a house with air conditioning, I have also learned tricks to stay cool enough to sleep.  First and foremost, don’t add to your misery by running the dryer, or cooking on the stove.  Those ones are obvious, but I have also found that running a computer can heat up a room in an awful hurry.  Though we don’t have a TV or video game system or big stereo, I would guess that they would also throw off a significant amount of heat.  Pay attention to what is heating up the room, as this can add five or ten degrees, maybe more, and ten degrees can be the difference between a sweaty night of tossing and turning, and an acceptable snooze.


Mom always closed all of the windows and blinds first thing in the morning, then opened everything back up in the evening to catch the cool breezes and cool the house.  We don’t have blinds on most of the windows here, yet, and the sheer curtains in the living room don’t do much to keep out the light or heat, so we take a different tactic.  We keep windows on the cool sides of the house (west and north in the morning, east in the evening) open to catch whatever breeze we can, but cover the windows as best we can (even using blankets) when the sun hits them.  In the hottest part of the day today, the house was substantially cooler inside than out, and not muggy at all.


We feed the dogs ice cubes and keep their water dish as cool as possible, as our poor husky is really not built for summer temperatures.  The cats, on the other hand, get all offended that I have blocked off all of their sunbeams.  Go figure.


Someday I will build myself a summer kitchen, or at least acquire a barbeque, but in the meantime, meals have been along the lines of ricotta and crackers, or milk-and-frozen-fruit smoothies, or veggies and dip.  Ice cream with canned fruit has been a lunchtime favorite lately, and I have been known to snack on frozen strawberries.  I suppose we could do sandwiches, if we had any luncheon meat, but neither of us has really been interested in sitting down for a ‘proper’ meal.  Tomorrow, when it is cooler (the weatherman is calling for rain), I will make up more ricotta, and do any other cooking that might be necessary, like pasteurizing milk and canning up all of the saskatoon berries Hubby picked for me earlier this week.  You have to plan ahead for this stuff.


Come bedtime, if it is still too warm inside, and there is no breeze (like tonight) even with all the windows open and the ceiling fan in the living room going full blast, I make a point of going to bed with wet hair.  Even a brief duck through the shower (or, in my case, a bucket of cool water poured over my head) can cool you down substantially.  I also wipe my arms and face with a damp cloth just before laying down.  If it is really hot, I wet a dish towel, then wring it out until it is just damp, and use that instead of a sheet.  Of course, this only works if the humidity is low (which is usually in in Saskatchewan), but as the water evaporates, it cools the towel (and me), which is sometimes the last little bit of cooling I need to get to sleep…

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It rained yesterday, finally.  The weatherman had called for rain on at least six separate days lately, with no luck.  Even yesterday’s shower wasn’t exactly a downpour, but enough to properly water the garden, at least.

It was also enough to have Hubby running around outside, putting various containers under drips from the eaves.

There are only so many water conservation tactics we can use in our situation.  I have to shower more frequently than I might bother with if I were not dealing with the public every day, for instance.  My “showers” (bucket baths, as the shower is not working, and not all that high on our priority list right now) only take 5 or 6 gallons, but I do that most every day, which makes a dent in the water supply.  We re-use the bathwater for watering the freshly-planted trees, so we are getting two uses out of every gallon, at least.

My clothing also has to be presentable or better.  With cats and dogs and living in the middle of nowhere where it is either dusty or muddy almost all of the time, we do a fair bit of laundry.  We put off doing some things – kitchen floor mats, for instance, or the doggie beds – but it all needs washing eventually.  We were holding off, waiting for the rain, since every full load ‘costs’ us 60 gallons of water.  And water costs a fortune.  We need a front-loading washer or some other low-use option, but for the moment, money is tight, so we have to improvise.

So with the rain, I sorted the laundry while Hubby hauled buckets of water in.  To do the laundry with rainwater, we load up the washer, add the soap, and start pouring water in.  When we think we have enough water in the tub, we shut the lid briefly to make sure the washer does not try to add more.  We make a note of how much water we added, so that we put in enough for the rinse cycle.  Then we run downstairs and turn off the water supply to the machine.

You have to pay a lot of attention when you are doing laundry this way.  At the beginning of the rinse cycle, the machine makes a funny noise, which sounds like it is straining for something.  We have been careful to add water right away, so as not to burn out any motors or anything.  Hauling the water is quite a bit of work.   However, with this rain, we managed to do five loads of laundry (two normal loads of clothing, and three loads if stuff we had been saving, like towels and dog beds and the like), and did not use any hauled water at all.  The laundry smells quite nice, too.  Hubby was a bit dubious about using the water off the roof for the rinse cycle, as there was some dust and pollen in it, but our laundry looks as clean as ever.   Anyone with a rain barrel could do the same.

Hopefully it keeps raining at least once a week, and we can keep doing laundry cheaply until we can afford that darn front-loader…

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…Actually, it’s not just the Jam Gods.  It’s also the Chicken Coop Gods, the Hitting Yourself in the Knee with a Hammer gods, and the Sore Back Gods.  I think they are having a good old laugh at my expense.


We got going on the barn at about 6:00 this morning, as we wanted to get things finished up before the chickens arrive…tomorrow.  Things went fairly well until about 11:00, when we ran out of nails.   It all got pretty frustrating very quickly after that.  Hubby moved some straw bales around and was off doing useful things, but my back was too sore to contemplate most of the useful stuff that I could reasonably tackle.  With my back being so messed up, I can’t reliably work the clutch in the car, so I couldn’t even drive into town for more nails.  It’s probably for the best, as it would be an awful waste to spend $10 in gas to buy $5 in nails.


I was leaning in the doorway of one of the stalls, contemplating the goats’ million dollar view, when I noticed the dandelions getting thick again, even though Hubby just mowed the lawn.  in the spirit of good permaculture, I decided to try to make a resource out of something that is otherwise a nuisance.


I wandered inside and googled ‘dandelion recipes’, and came up with some interesting ideas for a batch of wine.  Unfortunately, they all seemed to call for about four gallons (!) of dandelion flowers.  I decided I had nothing better to do, and at least crawling around on all fours doesn’t aggravate my back.  It was interesting getting down there with a bucket – I noticed all sorts of bugs that I would never normally see, as well as really looking closely at dandelions for probably the first time.  Once you get past the ‘noxious weed’ mindset, they are actually quite pretty.  I was even kind of enjoying myself, but after about two gallons’ worth of dandelion heads picked, the knee I smacked with the hammer earlier (don’t ask) started to protest.  I couldn’t keep picking, but I did not want to have wasted all that effort.


I eventually found a recipe for dandelion jelly that looked pretty good, and only used ingredients I happened to have on hand.  It was fiddly, as you have to cut the petals off of each flower, enough to make a quart of petals (which takes about two quarts of flowers), but again, I had lots of time.  I cut the petals off the couple gallons of flowers I had, and got to work.


The first batch of jelly, I got over-excited, and put the sugar in before the pectin.  That one may just be syrup.  The second batch, I used low-sugar pectin, because I had run out of the regular stuff, and the whole thing set into a solid mass the second I added the sugar.  I am not sure what I did wrong there, as I followed the directions exactly.  Panicking, I added more dandelion broth and sugar, but it just turned into a lumpy soup, even after bringing back to a boil.  That used up almost all of my dandelion broth, so the planned third batch did not happen.  This really sucks, as it actually tastes great, even if neither batch gelled properly.   I am already looking forward to having some on pancakes.


So, in case anyone else wants to tempt the Jam Gods, here is the recipe for Dandelion Jelly:


1 quart dandelion petals (takes about 2 quarts of flowers.  I just used scissors to cut the petals off)

2 quarts water

Boil these together for about 10 minutes.  Strain through several layers of cheesecloth, or a jelly bag.  Add the juice of one lemon.


Measure out 3 cups of dandelion juice, and put it back in the pot.  Return to heat, and add one box of (regular!) pectin.  Following the directions on the package, add 5 cups of sugar (my packet said to add the sugar once the juice has come to a boil, then return to a boil for one full minute before removing from heat).  Ladle into pint or half-pint jars, and process for ten minutes.


Hopefully it will work better for you than it did for me, but by all means try it – it really does taste great!

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…And I really mean that.

We’ve pared down our grocery bill, we’ve been skimping on heat, turning out lights and appliances as soon as they’re not needed,  and watching our water use like hawks.  We’re doing things the hard way, digging post holes by hand, rather than hiring a guy with a tractor, and wearing shoes with holes in them.  This lifestyle is still costing us a small fortune.

It would probably be cheaper if we had opted to ease into this whole project, by maybe just putting in a garden this year and getting chickens next year, or planting a couple of fruit trees each year, rather than a hundred at once.  Unfortunately, I am not patient that way.  While we are not exactly throwing money around frivolously, the infrastructure is a big up-front cost, along with the up-front cost of obtaining the seeds, and tools, and livestock, and feed.  Then there are the fruit and nut trees, and the shelterbelt.  This is not to mention the truck we are going to need, nor the tractor, nor the lost wage from Hubby switching from a day job to doing the farm work.  Once we’ve gotten all of these things in order, then it will be cheap to maintain, but for now, sticker shock is getting to me.

I guess it is the same as anything else, though – you get what you pay for.  You can get a mid-price pair of solid boots that will last for a few years, or you can buy your footwear on the installment plan, paying $20 every few months, which always seems to cost me more in the long run.  We do the same thing with groceries – buy in bulk, and pay more at a time, but less per pound.  In that vein, we’ve chosen to go with papered livestock, because the offspring will be worth more when it comes time for us to sell, so in the long run, it will make us more money.  In the meantime, I console myself with the thought that I bought four (!)  goats for less money than we spent on a week in Cuba last fall.  The goats will last longer, at least.   It is just that now we need a barn,  and hay, and straw, and buckets, and a pitchfork, and a fence, and and and…I can see why you need to inherit a farm in order to be profitable at it.  And that’s just the goats!

Someday, I hope, we won’t be paying for groceries, and we’ll be getting better quality (free range, organic, etc) as well.  Someday, I hope, we can sell eggs and milk and goats and produce, and get some (or all!) of the outlay back.  For now, though, we spend and spend and spend…

I sure am glad we saved up for this, but I’ve got to say, much like everyone else I’ve ever spoken to who has purchased a house or an acreage, I underestimated what this was going to cost.

Which is not to complain.  Every morning, seeing all of the ducks and geese and patchwork fields full of tractors and cows, I remember how unspeakably lucky I am just to be here in this place.  Hubby and I are very happy here, and although it is only supposed to be a temporary stop, we’ve fallen quite in love with this acreage.  I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be right now, nor anything else I would rather be doing…I just wish we could do it all a little cheaper, somehow…

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I was washing my hands the other day, waiting for the water to warm up, and thinking about how the cold water from the cistern is always cold, even on a hot day.   Upon further thought it is probably about 8 degrees (Celsius), which I believe is ground temperature, at least below the frost line.  About four degrees warmer than my fridge, but pretty cold, regardless.

Later, I was talking to Mom, who is currently using a cooler to keep her milk from going sour, as her fridge is inaccessible in storage right now – she is waiting on a few more finishing touches to be completed on her house before moving the rest of her things.

Of course, the two thoughts clicked, and I think that, for our off-grid house, I will build a very large cistern (to catch rainwater), but in the middle of the cistern, I think I will build a small room, well insulated form the rest of the house, and accessible from above, to use as something of a walk-in (or climb-down) cooler.  A springhouse, if you will.  Except for the spring, of course, but you get the idea…

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