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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Cook Dinner Every Night (Almost)

Over the past couple of weeks, the blogosphere has been a-blogging about the recent article in Slate that contends that making dinner every night places an undue burden on women, especially working mothers, and therefore might not be worth the trade-off.

My initial reaction to this piece was, "what trade-off?"  We all have to eat dinner, and, for most of us, neither our waistlines nor our overall health nor our wallets will allow us to eat out every night or subsist on wholly-prepared grocery foods (like heat-and-eat dinners).  So actually going into that big room with all the expensive appliances and rattling some pots and pans seems like a necessity, not an option.

But is it oppressive and an undue burden?  For one perspective, I invite you to visit my friend and colleague Natasha over at Dance Love Sing Live.  I can personally attest to the fact that Natasha can juggle multiple writing and editing jobs, homeschooling, a farm, and some food allergies and sensitivities, all without becoming oppressed.  The last time I saw her, she had spent the morning chasing a 1200 pound bull, and yet her hair was perfectly done and her lipstick was on.  I promise you want to follow along with her on her blog.

Anyway, Natasha can give you the working farm mom perspective, but I thought I'd share the suburban sustainability perspective.  For those of you just tuning in, Mr. FC&G and I are a family of two with four businesses, an active amateur ballroom dance schedule, and a large garden.  So here's how we get dinner on the table every night, along with most of our lunches and all of our breakfasts, without experiencing any oppression or unacceptable trade-offs.

Saturday and Sunday
These are our big cooking days, especially Sunday.  At least one day each weekend, we go all-out in making a big meal.  This might be a pot roast, a pork roast, a roast chicken, or a homemade lasagna.  In the summer, Mr. FC&G heads out to the fire pit and cooks a ton of burgers, fish, and kosher hot dogs.  Alongside all of these meats, we cook whatever veggies are in season: potatoes, whipped butternut squash, shredded zucchini and tomatoes, or the like.

Note that these are big meals, but they aren't all that complex.  One of the easiest things you can do is roast a bird or a cut of meat; you pretty much just put it in the roasting pan for a couple of hours and baste it once in a while.  Likewise, grilling out takes very little extra time to add some extra burgers or salmon fillets to the grill top once the fire is going.  But all of these "large" meals will throw off maybe two more dinners for each of us, along with a lunch or two for Mr. FC&G.

Weeknights are usually taken up with us trying to wrap up work and head off to dance or work out, so we rely on simple meals.  These might include:

  • Leftovers: the exact same meal we had on Sunday, reheated
  • Pollo saltado, made with the leftover chicken
  • Wrap sandwiches with shredded pork or chicken and fresh garden veggies
  • Homemade spaetzle with jarred sauce (mine or store-bought organic) and cheese
  • Beef and sausage meatballs in a jarred masala sauce
  • Cheesy potato soup or similar hearty soup
  • Grilled cheese and canned or boxed tomato soup
All of these are accompanied by garden veggies in season. None of these meals take long to prepare or eat.

I eat all of my lunches at home, so I'll depend on more traditional lunches like salads of garden veggies or PB&J (one of my favorites!).  But Mr. FC&G is at a client site most days, so he takes a lunch with him 3-4 days a week to save money and give him a healthier option.  To make this happen, we package up a lunch for him while we are cleaning up the dishes; often, he'll take the leftovers of dinner, but sometimes we'll make a wrap sandwich or something similar that will travel well.

I find cooking relaxing, so I often incorporate some kitchen time into my relaxation.  I might make bread, bake cookies, or even dabble in making yogurt or sour cream.  I also have a number of food activities I can do while I work, like making a batch of homemade ginger ale in the crock pot or drying fresh herbs for future meals.  I also like to can items that will stock the pantry:  homemade tomato sauce, beef stew, or soup stock.  All of these activities keep our pantry and fridge stocked with the elements that will make for easier meal prep on a busy night.

Friday (or Saturday) is often our night out to eat, depending on schedule and budget constraints.  We try to choose a healthy option when we can, and we bring home any leftovers for the next day's lunch (if that's appropriate).

We rely on a few overall tips to keep us going through our week.

  • Cook in bulk.  Any time you are turning on an appliance, make extra of what you are cooking, whether that's cooking a whole roast for two people, making a double batch of spaetzle, or making an extra grilled cheese.  Never cook just one meal if you can help it.  If you turn on the oven, make it do its job by making a loaf of bread alongside that roast or otherwise combining foods that need to cook at the same temp.
  • Process the food immediately.  What makes leftovers difficult is turning them into another meal:  cold roast or chicken gets hard to shred or cut, and it is unmotivating to turn the leftovers of almost anything into something else once they've been stored a while.  Go ahead and cut your leftovers down into the form you will need them later in the week while they are still warm and fairly appetizing: shred, trim, slice, or the like.  Don't forget to put bones in the stock bucket to make stock for soup.
  • Package future servings.  Again, it's the prep that keeps people from packing lunches.  Have some glass containers that will go from fridge to microwave, and go ahead and package up the next day's lunch while you are doing the dishes.  That way, it is easy to grab and go.

Do you have great ideas for speeding up meal prep?  Let me know in the comments!

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Things My Garden Just Won't Do

I talk a lot about my garden successes on this blog (and show pictures of them, like the one on the right), which might inadvertently create the impression that I always know what I'm doing out there.  So, from time to time, I find it cathartic to admit that there are some things that my garden just won't do:

My garden won't grow pumpkins:  I've tried to grow pumpkins about half of the years we've lived here, and I can't do it.  I've tried plants, commercial seed, seed I've saved from heirlooms, and seed I've started in the greenhouse.  To date, I've harvested precisely one pumpkin in 13 summers.  I give.

My garden won't grow melons:  Likewise, I've tried to grow cantaloupe and watermelons several times, and I've never harvested a single fruit.  I think it has to do with me giving the tomatoes and cucumbers the sunniest spots, leaving the melons in slightly more dappled shade.  But you'd think I'd get something out of them occasionally.  Again, I'm done.

My carrots are always squat:  I know better than to try to grow eight-inch carrots around here with Ohio's clay soil, but even the beds that I carefully mix with peat moss and sand still give me short, fat little carrots.  I've taken to growing only container varieties to quell the disappointment.

Cucumber beetles and powdery mildew are a way of life:  Although I employ every organic method to delay and prevent the onset of these two scourges, they almost always take my cucumbers and zucchini in the end.  This year, I delayed losing plants until well into August.  Last year was the first year I didn't have any plants at all succumb to beetles and mildew.  I'd never seen a cucumber vine die a natural death before that, and I was kind of amazed.

Is there anything your garden just won't grow?  Commiserate in the comments!
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Friday, September 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August 2014

August is what we work for here on the micro-farm. The whole rest of the year builds up to one enormous harvest month, and even the late harvest season couldn't slow us down.  This month, we harvested $358 worth of produce weighing 92.6975 pounds.

The garden became profitable on August 9, and some highlights as of the end of August include:

  • The San Marzano tomato has given us 188 ounces (11.75 pounds) of fruit, for a retail value of $52.64.  Likewise, the Cuor di Bue tomato has given us 184 ounces (11.5 pounds) of fruit for a total retail value of $51.52. That's over $100 of fruit from just two plants. 
  • The Steakhouse tomato started bearing fruit later than these transplants from Tennessee, but by the end of August we had harvested 146 ounces (9.125 pounds) or a retail value of $40.88.  My continual favorite, the Black Krim, has given us 64 ounces (4 pounds) of fruit so far, for a value of $17.92.  Since I believe the tomatoes are actually running about three weeks behind schedule, I'm hoping I can keep them going into September, because there's a lot of great green fruit out therre.
  • For those who believe volunteer tomatoes never yield anything, I submit my harvest as of the end of August:  I've gotten 35 ounces (2.1875 pounds) of fruit for a retail value of $9.80 off of my volunteers.  All of them seem to be bearing fruit late, so I expect this total to really pop in September barring an early freeze.
  • We've harvested over 16 pounds of butternut squash, for a value of $51.40.  
  • Cucumbers and zucchini have nearly finished up at lower totals than last year's spectacular harvest:  625 ounces (over 39 pounds) of cucumbers for a value of $100, and 255 ounces (nearly 16 pounds) of zucchini for a value of $53.55.
Beans are also doing very, very well this year, and we have plenty of carrots, potatoes, and kale yet to harvest.  I think the fall harvest should be stronger than usual this year.

However, in spite of the good performance, we are nearly $100 behind last year's tally for this time.  Let's hope a strong September brings us back up to par!  I'd love to have my garden savings top $500 this year, but only time will tell.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,226.0
Pounds: 139.125

Total Value of Harvest: $509.50
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $223.37
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Late Summer Garden To-Do List

And just like that, Labor Day has passed.  For Midwestern gardeners, it's time to start thinking about fall.  My to-do list on these last sunny weekends looks like this:

1.  Remove garden plants as they finish up.  I've already removed the Cuor di Bue tomato that started bearing on July 1 and was a mass of brown on Sept. 1.  Next out will be the other Tennessee tomatoes: the San Marzano is done, and the Box Car Willie will soon follow.  If you aren't up to date on the saga of the Tennessee tomatoes, I promise a recap at the end of gardening season.

2.  Burn any garden plants that suffered from bacterial wilt.  Order beneficial nematodes for the garden to help curb the problem next year.

3.  Nurture the fall garden.  I put in some peas and broccoli, and now I need to keep fending off the critters that want to eat the tender shoots as they make it up over the tops of our critter fencing tubes.  I'll be putting up the pop-up greenhouse soon to create a little garden to weather the frost.

4.  Keep canning.  I need to do another batch of tomato sauce soon, and I recently tried canning green beans and loved it.  

What are you doing in the garden this late summer?
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Friday, August 29, 2014

Tomato Review: Burpee's Steakhouse

This year, I've been all about the heirloom tomatoes, with several new varieties joining old favorites: Cuor di Bue, San Marzano, Box Car Willie, Black Krim, Amish Paste, and, of course, my cherished volunteer tomatoes.  But I have to give a nod to my new favorite hybrid tomato:  Burpee's Steakhouse Hybrid.

Now, contrary to the product description, I have yet to get a three pound tomato out of these, but I am regularly getting tomatoes that are between 10 ounces and one pound.  Not too shabby, when many of the rest of my tomatoes are coming in at 4-8 ounces.

The flesh of these is meaty and dense, but it retains a juiciness and sliceability.  It's easy to peel if you like your slicers peeled on a plate, as I do, and it even adds a great deal of volume to sauce.

The Steakhouse Hybrid is an excellent addition to your garden for both canning and for eating raw.  Even though I'll keep growing heirlooms, I'll save room next year for a few of these beauties.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pressure-Canned Beef Stew

Thank heavens for a blurry, tilted iPhone photo, because this has got to be the ugliest thing I've ever canned.  But it will get the job done!

Friday, I told you that I was contemplating putting up some beef stew for Mr. FC&G.  He works a lot of long hours, and this often means he's in a factory environment at all hours of the day and night.  Seeking a meal means vending machines or fast food if he doesn't take food along with him.  But he really needs options that are shelf-stable (desk-drawer-stable?), so that he doesn't have to worry if he takes a lunch and then winds up not eating it because he's busy or because the guys opted to go out to eat.

Enter beef stew.  This recipe could be fairly expensive, except the garden is in full production right now.  Therefore, the only thing I bought was the beef and the onion.  It also takes a while to make, but most of that time was pressure canning time, so I just needed to be near the canner and not actively supervising it.  (That is, I'm in the room, but I'm not watching it like I would a television show.  Never leave a pressure canner completely alone.)

Beef Stew
2 lbs. beef stew meat (I used organic beef from our farmer's market)
1 large onion, diced (organic)
1 qt. stock (home canned from my pantry)
8 oz. sliced carrots (garden)
8 oz. snapped green beans (garden)
1 t. dried thyme (garden)
1 t. dried marjoram (garden)
1 t. corn starch for thickening (never flour if you are going to pressure can)
salt and pepper to taste.

Brown stew meat and cook onions until translucent.  Add stock and vegetables and bring to a steady simmer, adding the corn starch for thickening if you wish right before canning.

Into sterile pint canning jars, ladle the stew, leaving about 1 inch headspace (about the thickness of the jar threads).  Seal and process in pressure canner, 75 minutes at 15 lbs pressure.  (Note:  We are right at 1,000 feet, and my canner instructions says to always can at 15 lbs pressure above 1,000.  If you are truly below 1,000 feet, 10 lbs. pressure should be fine.

The Analysis
Fast:  This recipe took me about two and a half hours, so not very fast.

Cheap:  Organic stew beef is $9.50 per pound at our farmer's market, so I was happy to pay $19 to finish this recipe and have the peace of mind of the quality of the meat.  The price was mitigated by how much produce and stock came from my own efforts.  Add in a bit for the onion and the starch, salt, and pepper, and this still comes in at $20 for four healthy-sized servings, or $5 per meal.

Good:  I've got to be honest:  beef stew is a bridge too far for my picky palate.  But Mr. FC&G nodded approvingly when I took him a sample before canning, so I guess it works!
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Friday, August 22, 2014

Today I Am...

Well, this week certainly got away from me!  It's Friday afternoon, and I owe everyone a blog post.

The thing is, many of the sustainability projects and activities I'm doing aren't new; they're the regular late summer things.  So, I'm taking a leaf out of The Non-Consumer Advocate's book and telling you what I'm up to today. (But before you read, please head on over to The Non-Consumer Advocate and tell Katy how much you love her blog!)

Today I am....

  • Dealing with some challenging work projects.
  • Looking for just the right new writing project for fall to replace a gig that fell through.
  • Visiting the farmer's market for organically-raised stew beef so I can make Mr. FC&G some pressure canned jars of beef stew for his winter lunches.  I love the thought that he can take a jar with him to work and either reheat it that day or have it available the next day.  Since he sometimes works 16 hours at a stretch, finding food that's healthy and that travels well to work is really important if I want him to eat well and avoid the fast food.
  • Trying to figure out whether Mr. FC&G is pulling one of the aforementioned 16-hour shifts tonight, which would leave me to find something to do on my own.
  • Contemplating whether that "something to do" will be crocheting and watching Netflix.  I'm excited about a new line of bamboo/silk yoga socks I have in my Etsy store, and I'm eager to add more.
  • Looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow morning!  I don't want to open my eyes until that clock reads double digits in the hours column, thank you very much!

So how about you?  Tell me what sustainable activities you're up to!

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