Growing pains

Abandoned toy


UPDATE: This site can now be viewed directly at

Sometime in about a week, I will be switching web hosts.  This will enable me to let my blog better reflect the business behind it, which would otherwise be against policy.

All of the content (save this post) has been exported to the new (but offline) site already, including your comments.  There will be no more ads.  There will also be no more “likes”.  But the blog will look much the same, with all the parts in the same place it has been, and you’ll have more options for sharing posts that you like.

Important highlights for regular readers:

  • The web site address will still be, but at the switch or shortly thereafter, the site will direct to a static home page and there will be a menu option for the blog.  Those of you with bookmarks will probably want to edit your bookmarks to go direct to the blog.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts by following on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ will still get updates that way.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts on RSS:  It might work, or you might need to reset your feed.  I am about 80% sure you will need to change nothing.
  • Email subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site.
  • subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site, but you will no longer get email notifications from  If you want email notifications, once the site is moved you will have the option to subscribe there.
  • readers who aren’t subscribed but see us in Reader: The site will no longer appear in Reader unless you manually add it or follow us using one of the methods above.

I am very excited about the move, as it opens up a lot of options for me.  When the site is officially moved, I’ll post a quick note on both the new and the WordPress link  If you don’t see that within 10 days, please check in manually.

I hope you will join me at the new site, and bring your friends and questions!


Food storage cooking: the essential tool chest

Mitla Black tepary bean seeds

Mitla Black tepary bean seeds

It’s cold.  You are thinking about fresh greens for spring, but aside from a few edible spring weeds and any squash and sweet potatoes you have in storage, fresh food is at the grocery store imported from distant locations, not in your yard.  75 years ago, scarcely anyone had fresh foods in winter and certainly not in the early part of the year called “the starving time.”  They were eating their canned, pickled, fermented, dried and smoked preparations from last fall.

Food storage today, for those that practice it, mostly consists of commercially prepared foods and whole grains and beans.  Today I want to focus on those whole grains and beans because many people have lost touch with cooking such simple foods.  Cooking these items from scratch is often considered too difficult and time consuming, but it needn’t be with the right tools.

Let’s start with the old fashioned way.  You don’t need a special appliance for cooking rice and beans; they can all be cooked on a stove top in a saucepan, but if you go that route you need to have the time to pay attention to them because they can burn quickly, especially rice.  The basic recipe is easy.  Boil water, add grains, cover and simmer until done.  Rice is done in 20-60 minutes, depending on the rice.  Beans should generally be soaked overnight beforehand to reduce cooking time.   Cast iron cookware is preferred here, particularly if you will ever want to be cooking outdoors, but cast iron may turn your rice gray unless it is ceramic coated.

Next up is a tool almost every kitchen has: the old fashioned slow cooker, also known as a Crock Pot after the most famous market name of these appliances.  These run $20-70 if you don’t have one already, and have many other uses.  Slow cookers excel at beans.  You add water and beans, set the cook time and walk away.  You can cook rice in them, too, and they are fantastic at slow cooking cheaper cuts of meat.

But if you are going to be cooking these foods a lot — and you should if they are part of your food storage program — you want to give serious consideration to a rice cooker.  Millions of Asians eat rice every day and wouldn’t consider it a kitchen without one.  Even travel versions are popular.  You have two choices here: an on/off cooker or a fuzzy logic cooker, both of which can be used for more than just rice.

I prefer the fuzzy logic cookers.  With a fuzzy logic rice cooker, you can put in beans or whole grains and the appropriate amount of water, tell it to cook it and walk away.  They are very flexible and adaptable to different sizes and densities of grains, and can cook oats for you overnight or beans for your dinner, or both.  When it’s done, it will keep your food warm and fresh for many hours.  This is your most flexible option, but it will set you back $150 or more.  Induction cookers are also available for stratospheric prices but don’t work any better.  For smaller households, I suggest the 5 cup models; the 3 cup models are really too small for soup and similar dishes.  (Bear in mind that is 3 metric cups, which is slighter smaller than the cup we use in the States.)  The cheaper ones, I’m sorry to say from personal experience, do not last long.  If you buy one, don’t go cheap, just buy a Zojirushi.

On/off rice cookers specialize in white rice.  If you have every wondered how the rice comes out so perfect at your favorite Asian restaurant, it’s thanks to a huge commercial rice cooker in the back.  These kinds of rice cookers can be had quite cheaply at the low end ($20-30) but the cheaper ones have sporadic quality.  The Japanese-made Tiger rice cookers are probably the best available and are designed to work for years and years with daily usage, but they aren’t much cheaper than their fuzzy logic cousins.  The on/off cookers do an excellent job with white rice, and are functional but less proficient with brown rice, beans and other whole grains.  On/off cookers also cook rice faster than fuzzy logic cookers.

There’s one exception to my preference for rice cookers: they tend to badly overcook lentils and split peas.  The stove top method is superior here, in my opinion, and is also fairly quick.

If you do get a rice cooker of either kind, the Rice Cooker Cookbook by Hensperger and Kaufman can help you get the most out of it, but while they set out to prove you can cook almost anything in one of these machines, some recipes (like risotto) are just easier the regular way in a pan.

Beans and whole grains are exceptionally healthy for you, store well and are very affordable.  Even the pricier trendy grains like quinoa and amaranth can be reasonably priced if you buy them in bulk, but simple wheat berries, barley and oats make great additions to meals.  If time is a concern, consider a specialized appliance, otherwise don’t be afraid to cook these on the stove.  They are not as difficult as some would like you to believe.

Turning DIY into a hobby for fun and (somebodies’) profit

spool of thread and needle-2

It’s tough to be frugal in the 21st century.  It used to be that if you were poor, you did things for yourself to save money, but today, DIY is a mega-profitable industry, and those huge profits mean you are often not saving any money.  Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Growing up, my Mom had the time and talent to make clothes.  She made high quality clothes for us at a fraction of the price similar quality clothes would cost in the stores.  While somewhat cheaper clothing was available, it didn’t come with hand tailoring and customization.  There was an upfront cost — a nice sewing machine — and knowledge needed, but it saved money.  Now, the cost of making a nice shirt will be 4 or 5 times the cost of shirt imported from a sweatshop overseas.  There’s no supply side reason denim costs $10/yard in the US, nevermind the zippers, buttons, thread and labor, when it’s the same denim used to make dollar store jeans.  Buying second hand isn’t always a bargain either when the thrift store charges $15 for used dollar store jeans you can get new for $17.
  • A few years ago, I priced out the supplies and equipment rental needed to add 15″ of insulation in my attic at Big Blue and Big Orange home improvement megastores.  It was almost $100 cheaper to hire someone to do the same job, and when the blower broke down, they repaired it and had it running again in 15 minutes instead of requiring a trip back to the store for me.  As a bonus, I didn’t spend all day in the attic, and a couple of guys earned some money for their families.
  • Two years ago, I priced out building a shed.  The material came out cheaper, true — but when I considered how many hours I would spend on the job, hours that I otherwise would spend on something more productive, hiring the local shed building pros to come out and spend half a day was not only cost effective, I didn’t have to run all over town trying to find all the parts I needed.  Nor did I lose the next 3 weekends sweating over a shed in the back yard.

This is not to say you can’t save money at all with DIY.  Calling a plumber out to replace a $15 faucet cartridge would cost me $100.  It’s okay with me if Big Orange marks it up 185% over their cost because it’s the only way I’m getting it direct, and the only thing else I need is a screw driver.  But when you are trying to be frugal, you have to look at the whole picture. Do not assume that doing it yourself is either good for you or good for your local economy.

Early I mentioned there was no supply-side reason for the high prices of sewing supplies and notions — however, there is a demand side reason.  Most people who sew now do it as a hobby.  It’s entertainment.  Or it’s something special, like a child’s Halloween costume.  And most of these people have at least one of two things in abundance: time and/or money.  You choose to spend time and money on a gift for your child; it is not driven primarily by financial considerations.

So what, the reader is asking, does this have to do with gardening?

Everything.  Garden shops, seed stores and catalogs know that many people who are gardening are doing it as hobby.  Many gardeners are single income families because they choose to be, either permanently or temporarily while there are young children at home.  Or, they are retired, and despite the high numbers of elderly people living in or near poverty, older people statistically have more disposable income than younger people (and what’s more, are more likely to spend it at home instead of in a bar, restaurant or on an experience like traveling).  Like sewing, for this group gardening is entertainment.  And so, prices go up, particularly for seeds and supplies that have a certain cache.  Organic.  Heirloom.  Green.

If you are gardening for financial or preparedness reasons, you need to be very careful where your money goes.  There is no supply-side reason why tomato seeds cost $4.50 for a packet of 20 seeds, while a $3.00 packet of broccoli seeds might have 300 seeds in it, seeds that took two years to produce and were harder to save.  If you are not saving your own seeds, or are not part of a local community that has seed swaps or plant swaps, you may be at the mercy of catalog prices, whether they make financial sense or not.

The long term solutions include saving your own seed, but for most of us with small plots of land this may mean years of experimentation to find the one vegetable variety in each species that does best for us.  That brings us back to the need for gardening communities and relationships that foster mutually beneficial exchanges.  Don’t forget to check out your locally owned garden centers and farmers for seeds and transplants that may be cheaper than what you can order.

And whatever you do, be very wary of obscenely overpriced gardening kits, be they raised beds, rain barrels, hanging bag vegetable things or glorified self-watering containers.  These are not marketed to you, the frugal gardener, they are marketed toward people for whom plunking down $150 for a square of four foot lengths of plastic and some connectors is a raised bed experience.  You can do better.  And if you are truly DIY clueless and don’t want to learn, this is an excellent opportunity to trade either a physical item or your expertise in some other subject for some handyman labor.

Caveat emptor.

Sauerkraut Update: Success



A few days ago, I posted asking for assistance for why my fermentation projects are always going awry.  For the current batch of kraut, I counseled patience for myself.  After all, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to start smelling any worse, and if it was bad-bad instead of temporarily bad on the way to good, there was no rescuing it.

My first sign of success was when I returned from a hike yesterday, walked inside and noticed the kitchen didn’t smell.  I checked the jar.  No mold or slime, no goo, just a little foam at the top and the cabbage is still all submerged.  No nasty smell.  I ventured a taste.  Sour-salty-cabbage with a bit of toothsomeness.

I wasn’t struck with amazement at how good it was or anything.  I don’t much care for pickled cabbage in vinegar so I didn’t have high hopes that the real thing would be some kind of culinary epiphany.  But I liked the fermented version better than the pickled version, and I could see eating this as a condiment with a strongly flavored meat like venison or wild boar.  I certainly understand better now why cultures have used lactofermentation as a food preservation method: it does manage to both preserve some of the original characteristics of the cabbage, but with a new taste and in a form that is fairly shelf stable.

Since I doubted I would like it to be more sour, I popped a ReCap lid on mine and into the fridge it went to stop the fermentation process.  Overnight it absorbed some of the brine, and despite the fact I didn’t really get excited over it yesterday, I found myself repeatedly nibbling on it while prepping the photo above.  It has a somewhat addictive quality, it seems.

Perhaps I will pair it with some spicy sausage?  I don’t believe I would can sauerkraut, though.  It would be too mushy.

Now that I have a single successful fermentation project under by belt, I feel more confident about tackling brewing.

Adventures in Lacto-Fermentation: Cabbage

Cabbage heads

Winter cabbage

Cabbage. I have lots of it.  Even the frozen cabbage I chipped out of my garden before the polar vortex arrived have defrosted fine in my fridge without only a few lost leaves.  5 days ago, I started a batch of sauerkraut.

Let me explain about me and lacto-fermentation.  I’ve read the books, analyzed the recipes and I’ll all for it.   Nonetheless, every time I try it I end up with smelly sludge that I would never, ever bring myself to eat.

Sauerkraut mason jar set up

Sauerkraut set up.  Not shown is the linen cover, secured by rubber band.

This time, I went small; no sense ruining too much cabbage even if I do have an excess.  I also eliminated the whey starter, since that method has never worked for me before.  I sterilized the jar, shredded and packed fresh cabbage mixed with kosher salt, topped it with a small jar filled with marbles to weigh it down, and placed it at a stable 68F. Sure enough, right on time the salt worked to create a deep brine. That was the last time I was sure things were okay. At Day 2 & 3, it was quite smelly. At Day 4, it was rank but I ventured a small taste.  Tasted like salty wilted cabbage.  No trouble keeping the cabbage submerged in the brine and no mold or goo.

Day 5 was this morning.  Does it smell less?  Another small taste.  Ugh.  Not sour, but bitter — a bitterness that hits the back of the throat and lingers.  (It’s been half an hour and I can still taste it.  It’s not pleasant.)  In such a small batch, I am thinking, the fermentation shouldn’t take long.  For now, the smelly jar will linger on my counter and I guess I will keep monitoring it to see if it yet turns into sauerkraut one evening when I am not looking.

Any advice from experienced fermenters?

UPDATE:  According to this site, I may be in stage one with Leuconostoc mesenteroides proliferating, which would produce the bitter taste, and should occur in about two days.  If so, my theory that smaller jars would ferment faster seems totally incorrect — it may be fermenting slower — and I just need to be patient for a while.

Honey Bee Envy


Photo by Paul Stein on Flickr

I was visiting a friend’s house last weekend to trade some of my extra butternut squash for some of her extra pecans, and found my gaze drifting back to the row of lovely honey jars she had tucked away on a shelf near the ceiling.  I have been fortunate enough to bring some of her honey home before and it’s divine.  Is there any honey that isn’t?  Oh no, there it goes again… bee envy.

I donated my vermicomposting setup and worms because I got tired of the idea caring for 5,000 pets.  Granted, red wigglers don’t shed.  But while worms give you lovely compost, bees give you honey.  Someday I’ll have bees.  Someday.  Can I count a hive as just one pet?

If you are in the Huntsville, AL area, you can find the Madison County Beekeepers Association on Facebook at or at  And starting this week, they begin a 4 night class on beginning bee keeping.  If you, too, have bee envy and are maybe ready to take the plunge, I can’t think of a better way to get started.  Class details are:

Our next Beginner’s Practical Beekeeping Class will be in the Auditorium at the Main Branch of the Huntsville/Madison County Public library,located at 915 Monroe Street, Huntsville, AL 35801. This is one (1) class that is broken into four (4) nights. There is no way to cover all the material in 1 night. Each class will cover an different period of time in a year in the apiary. The class is taught through the use of Power Point slides, video, and class participation. The class will meet from 5:30pm to 9:00pm on 1/7/14, 1/22/14, 2/3/14, 2/12/14. There is no charge for the class, and it is open to anyone (school age children and older through adults) interested in honeybees. No books are required, but if you would like to purchase a book, the class is based on Honey Bees and Beekeeping: A Year in the Life of an Apiary, 3rd edition by Keith S. Delaplane. (ISBN: 1-929832-31-1). You are welcome to take notes. It would be advisable to bring a jacket or sweater for comfort as the room can be chilly at times.
I understand scheduling problems. If you miss a class, you can usually catch up by listening to the questions that the other students ask.

To register for the class, please email your Name, Address, Phone, and Email address to: I will add you to the roster once I receive your info.