Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Long-Term Resolution

A couple weeks ago, I read a thought-provoking article "I Don't Recycle" written by Ronnie Citron-Fink and published by Care2.com. While I don't know the particular "editor of a well-known national magazine" Citron-Fink mentions, I've met many like her and they're represented by every gender, age, and ethnicity. They all have excuses. Some have suggested recycling is low-class or only done by "tree-huggers" – intimating it's unwarranted, merely the product of unreasonable fear. Some cite the loss of coveted space and time, or extraordinary effort, or hindering commitment, or the possibility of dirty hands.

Let's face it; recycling is not sexy, nor fun. It takes room to organize. It takes time. And, there's no direct reimbursement or remuneration for one's effort.

But, why should incentives be required for participation? Recyclables take no more space than the usual garbage, if disposed of regularly. In fact, since many recycled items are broken down, rinsed, flattened and/or folded, those materials take less space and smell better than regular garbage. Once a system is in place in the household, very little extra time is needed to sort and organize waste that would otherwise be sent to a landfill.

I've heard recycling-abstainers say there's "nothing in it" for them. That depends on perspective. In my view, there's tremendous compensation for recycling. Its ultimate value is priceless. The problem is, delayed reward – clearly a death-knell for a modern society hopelessly addicted to instant gratification.

The reward I speak of would be claimed by our children and our children's children. It may yet be possible for them to
live in an untainted environment if efforts are made today. Our pretty blue planet, like any living organism, could survive the overly-exhaustive stressors we place on it, and remain healthy (viable for human occupation) for generations to come. But, all depends on whether humanity deems recycling a worthy enough investment in a future they won't personally see, and whether we then make the time and put in real effort to fully implement this hygienic practice.

This, after all, is what recycling is: global hygiene. Humans no longer drop food peelings on the floor or toss broken dishes in a pile outside the door. As the self-proclaimed intellectual species, we've discovered it can be dangerously unhealthy to live as our cave-dwelling ancestors did, "fouling the nest" with all the waste involved in everyday living. Recycling merely refines discoveries made, over centuries, by people like Louis Pasteur and many others who strove to raise the quality of life for all by teaching simple sanitary routines.

And what could be simpler than rinsing out a soda bottle and then throwing it in a recycling bin instead of the garbage? That nominal effort, alone, could help prevent some of the 2,500,000 plastic bottles Americans use every hour (Recycling Revolution.com, recycling-facts) from ending their days in an already over-taxed landfill or one of many garbage patches floating on the world's oceans.

If you're already a recycler, thank you. You've made a wise and responsible choice, and are doing what you're able to make this world a better place. We can only hope future generations never fully appreciate how dire the situation once was.

If you don't yet recycle, it's time to embrace reality. Recycling is no longer an option. It's necessity. Now is the perfect time for a long-term resolution to contribute some of your own selfless action. Together, we may just enable humanity's survival on this one-in-a-million planet.


 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yule Blog

This blog will be short. My son and his young family are coming for the holidays and I've been hopping. As their arrival draws closer, excitement builds and it's difficult to focus on anything else.

Most of the remaining preparations involve food and drink so you'll understand why I thought to share a recipe today. As I was sorting through the many traditional and seasonal-favourites recipes, deciding on menu-plans, I came across this hot drink mix. It's tasty, easy to make, and relatively economical.


Cinnamon-Mocha drink mix
1
Cup
Sugar
½
Cup
Instant coffee or espresso powder
½
Cup
Cocoa powder, unsweetened
1
Tsp
Cinnamon
Directions:
Combine sugar, coffee, cocoa and cinnamon in a blender and process, stirring once or twice, until mixture is well blended and a fine powder. Store in air tight container.
To Serve:
Put 2-3 heaping teaspoons of mixture in a mug and fill with hot milk (or boiling water for a lighter drink.) Top with a dollop of whipping cream, if desired, and add a sprinkle of cinnamon.

For those of you looking for do-it-yourself ideas for the holiday season, you might find something to pique your interest on one of my favourite television shows by BBC-UK called Victorian Christmas. Their web-site offers instructions on twenty-five traditional projects.

As for me, it's back to our yuletide preparations – Danish cookies will fragrance our home tonight.

Until next time, I wish you and yours a very happy holiday season!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vinegar, a Winning Solution

Answers are sometimes found along convoluted paths. Occasionally, if we're really fortunate, those answers travel with friends. Plain white vinegar was just such a result I discovered.

For years, hubby has suffered with a persistent case of eczema, the after effect of plaster casts. He found no ointment to ease the symptoms. Dietary changes had no significant effect. Altering hygiene practices did little to lessen irritation. It seemed he would just have to live with it.

One day, while discussing this issue with my mother, she told me she had stopped using liquid fabric softeners because they were irritating my father's skin. A light bulb came on. Could this be contributing to hubby's problem? Following her example, I switched from liquid softener to dryer sheets and it seemed to help. Hubby's eczema diminished, but it didn't disappear entirely. Winter, the worst season with the wearing of close-fitting long-johns and brutal weather conditions, still aggravated it. I kept searching.

A girlfriend had once mentioned her love of "dryer balls," how eco-friendly they are and how well they soften and fluff fabrics. Always on the look-out for thrifty and ecologically-conscious methods and products, I wanted to try them but, at that time, was unable to find any. Months later, I finally found a set and was impressed by their reasonable price and how well they worked. Better yet, hubby's eczema occurred rarely once I replaced dryer sheets with them.

Then we moved. Cache Creek's water has a much higher mineral content than Vulcan's and soon our laundry showed signs of it. Fabrics felt courser, colours appeared duller, and fibres flattened. Worse, the eczema began acting up again. Something had to be done but having quit commercial fabric softeners I was reluctant to use them again. Aside from the environmental aspects, the possibility they might aggravate hubby's problem kept me searching for other, more natural laundry rinse agents.

Add caption
That search led me to vinegar. Would it really work? Certainly it was more cost-effective than using commercial fabric softeners. I'd often used vinegar for other cleaning and disinfecting purposes, but never thought to add it to laundry. Still, I hesitated, unsure if our clothes and linens would smell like pickles. Realizing the laundry could be re-washed, if need be, I gave vinegar a try.

What a find! With the very first wash, fibres of our favourite bathroom linens loosened and, folded, they had plumped to nearly double the fullness they had before using vinegar. Colours brightened and bedding felt soft and inviting again. Happily, no garments smelled like condiments. From that point on, only white vinegar and those dandy little dryer balls soften our laundry and control static cling – yes, for some reason, vinegar helps control that, too. As the foul weather blusters in, we watch and wait. For more than a month, hubby's worn long-johns and has been working in cold winter weather, yet his shins remain free of irritation. This may finally be the long-sought solution...pardon the pun.

My search to alleviate hubby's eczema began with single-minded purpose. I wasn't particularly seeking thrift or environmentally friendliness when starting the journey. Those dividends were simply travelling companions of the answer discovered down a long and winding trail.


 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gobble-Gobble

The turkey, with its ill-fated call, has dressed many tables through holiday seasons, past and present.  Increasingly it’s becoming a protein for everyday, also.  Though hubby and I both enjoy turkey, there’s only the two of us now, attempting to eat calorie-wise.  While turkey is a lean protein, most are just too large.  Re-freezing any meat is discouraged so, even if we made soup, there was often waste.  For this reason, we rarely cooked whole frozen turkey and standard prices for store-butchered turkey pieces were expensive enough to make them an infrequent meal option.

Fortunately, whole turkey is now being sold fresh or “air-chilled,” not frozen.    Though this option is still infrequent, it allows us to enjoy turkey more frequently by butchering the fresh bird at home and freezing the various portions.  Our cost of butchering is considerably less than store costs.  The simple table below relates the best prices we found, on October 10, 2010, at which time we bought the whole, air chilled turkey* in this comparison:

Approx.              Cut/Form                        Best price per lb.                    Total                       Whole, fresh *                          Total
pounds                                                       store-butchered             store-butchered            home-butchered               home-butchered
    0           Ground:  Breast meat                   $6.89                             $0                               $2.13                                  $0
    1           Ground:  Leg meat                        $3.99                             $ 3.99                         $2.13                                  $2.13
    3           Drumsticks (2): for soups,
                     casseroles & pizzas                   $2.89                             $ 8.67                         $2.13                                  $6.39
    2           Wings                                             $1.99                             $ 3.98                          $2.13                                 $4.26
    5            Breast roasts (2):  
                      Boneless, skinless                   $6.99                            $34.95                          $2.13                                $10.65
   11                  SUB-TOTALS                                                             $51.59                                                                   $23.43

20 cups     Clear Stock:  remaining carcass weighing approx.
                  4.5 lbs., includes bones, wing tips, neck, back, and
                  some breast meat.                                                                  n/a*                        $0.48*                               $ 9.68
                             TOTALS                                                                   $51.59                                                                  $33.11


Notes:
* For this comparison, all meat-cut/forms are in POUNDS and COST PER POUND.
* Air-Chilled Turkey:  7.06 kg (Approx. 15.5 lbs); $4.69 per kg (Approx. $2.13 per lb); Total cost = $33.11
* Turkey stock is unavailable to us, whether from the butcher, in cans or cartons.
* Turkey-stock cost per cup reflects cost of protein only.

As you can see, our whole turkey cost less than two, comparably sized, store-butchered, boneless, skinless turkey breasts.  The only items which cost us more per pound were the wings.  However the net difference is only $.28 and that was easily subsidized by the savings gained with any of the other cuts/forms.  We prefer not to grind breast meat, but found its store-cost worth noting, particularly odd because it was sold for less than whole breast.  If we had bought all the various cuts, butchered in-store, our $33.11 bird would’ve cost over $50 ...and that’s without stock.

The value of the stock I’ve calculated by subtracting our home-butchered, wrapped meats’ total value ($23.43) from the cost of the whole bird ($33.11), and dividing that result ($9.68) by the 20 cups of gelatinous “liquid gold” we put in the freezer.  Add to that the cost of vegetables, herbs and seasonings, the total cost per cup ranges from $.50 to $.55.  Still an excellent value, particularly as we are unable to buy turkey stock anywhere.

Organic turkey costs more per pound whether store- or home-butchered.  Though higher, organic costs compare similarly to the table above.  If you prefer organic, then the whole bird, dressed at home, still nets the greatest savings.  Its stock is, as always, a flavour-packed bonus.

Now that fresh turkey is occasionally available, it dresses our table much more regularly.  Home-butchery not only saves us money, it provides several meals worth of stock and, ultimately, reduces waste to its least.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Member of the Bored

At this time of year, it's easy to get caught up in the cycles of work, housekeeping, and seasonal preparations. But, all work and no play can make life monotonous. Taking time out to enjoy some fun activity not only revitalizes the spirit, it can help elevate the usual slog. The problem, during fall and winter, is that weather can repel even the most ardent outdoorsmen/women. And, during the holiday season, there are times when budgets squeak at the mere mention of a movie or dinner out. That's when it's time to get creative.

Board games are the usual standby, and for good reason. When families discover their favourite diversion, game night quickly becomes a much anticipated event. It's an excellent opportunity for parents to teach their children in a pleasurable way. Depending on the game, young players can practice reading and counting, or get subtle education in arithmetic, geography, economics, or history. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is learning good sportsmanship. That's an emotional skill which can carry children (and adults) gracefully through many of life's most challenging moments.


Some electronic games provide the same opportunities for family fun, but here the choices are more limited. Many games are isolating: one player, engrossed in on-screen activity, is not conducive to fellowship. But, there are a few games which engage several players, and some even provide energetic game-play.


Golf-pro hubby
A few years ago, hubby and I were introduced to Wii on a visit to our daughter and her family. What a fantastic invention! It wasn't long after that visit we bought our own console and games. Since then, we've enjoyed year-round golfing. Occasionally, we hit the lanes and go bowling, play ping-pong or tennis, or shoot some pool. And, when life gets frustrating, there's terrific tension relief in pummelling a virtual punching bag. With a wide-ranging variety of multi-player games, there's something for everyone. While I still enjoy our favourite board games, backgammon has never gotten my hibernating buttocks off the couch and engaged in activity.

Though Nintendo blazed the trail with Wii, many gaming platforms now have similar physically-interactive options. The initial cost of these consoles and their software can be expensive, but that cost is relative to how often the unit is used. If hubby and I had paid green fees for the many rounds of golf we've played, the cost of our console and all its games and accessories would pale in comparison. Shooting pool would've involved visiting some very dodgy establishments. Playing tennis would've subjected me to more direct sun than bearable. Wii has enabled us to participate in several activities that, for whatever reason, were previously inaccessible to us. These are values hard to calculate.

So the next time you find yourself a member of the bored, dig out your favourite game – or explore new ones – and enjoy some thrifty fun!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sew Much To Do!

For everything there is a season. For some, fall is football season. For hubby, it's hunting. For me, this is sewing season. Actually, I sew three seasons of the year but must (reluctantly) set it aside during the extreme heat of summer. So, as temperatures begin dropping and leaves turn golden, sewing fever grabs hold.

I didn't begin sewing for its economy, though. It was the poor fit of most store-bought attire that prompted my interest. With body proportions that vary from "regular" I was often frustrated when clothes shopping. If a blouse fit through the chest, the arms were several inches too long and the shoulders drooped. If arm-length and shoulders fit, then chest buttons could take out an eye at thirty paces. It was similar with slacks. If the rise fit, the legs were voluminous and inches too long. If the leg fit, then the pants rise went only to my hip and no amount of tummy sucking will see those zippers closed. The aggravation was so great that I began to avoid clothes shopping altogether. Tailoring was an option, I realize, but our budget just didn't have the wiggle-room for the added expense on top of the clothing purchases. Forget couture!

Then, a few years ago, tired of being pinched or bound by ill-fitting clothes, I decided to learn sewing. I knew the first projects would likely not be the best quality, but I was prepared to suffer a little ugly to have clothes that actually fit. What a concept! I was right, too. Those first few projects had their problems. But, I had begun with "home clothes" like sleep and casual wear, so nobody (other than family) would see those mistakes which, hubby assures, weren't bad at all. With each project, my knowledge and skill grew. Interpreting pattern directions can still be confusing, but most of the techniques and production steps have become routine. For the occasional conundrum, I reference a handy sewing book, inherited from my mother, and that usually helps decipher even the most convoluted pattern directions. When all else fails, I have my go-to people (Mom and my BFF) who have, combined, literally decades of sewing experience between them.

The unsought "bonus" was thrift.

Even using the more luxurious fabrics, I can make garments less expensive than similar store-bought clothes. FAR less expensive. Of course, there are patterns and notions (thread, elastic, lace, etc.) to be accounted for however those items are usually used for more than one project so their nominal costs are defrayed by that number. I've extended the life of one oft-used pattern by tracing it on tissue paper before it disintegrated. I've also created "adjusted" pattern pieces (to better fit my body proportions) in a similar fashion.

But, the cost-saving doesn't end with the production of the garment. The night wear I made first, over three years ago, is still in use. No seams have opened. The material isn't threadbare. A few buttons are just now becoming loose, but that's an easy fix. I've come to realize that store-bought clothing is not exempt from the marketing evils of planned obsolescence. What else can explain the tripling (at least) of these garments' lifespan?

I had someone tell me they prefer to wear the latest fashions. That's never been a priority for me, but I can understand the desire. Sewing doesn't preclude this fashion choice, though. Each season, I see new patterns reflecting the latest styles added to the collections of all the major pattern-makers (Simplicity, Butterick, and Vogue, to name a few of my usual choices.) Also, if you're like me and have difficulty finding store-bought clothing that fits well, you might find it tough to part with the few clothes which do. These personal gems, when they reach their end-of-days can be "exploded" (carefully taken apart with a seam-ripper) and the pieces used to create your own pattern.

Creating couture-quality clothing is something I aspire to, but it takes time, patience and practice to achieve that goal. If you're interested in sewing, I've got a few simple hints to share, lessons hard-learned that don't appear in pattern instructions or most sewing books. Here are a few of those suggestions:
  • Prior to any project, oil, if necessary, your sewing machine and then clean the machine and the sewing area thoroughly.
  • Before cutting or sewing anything, read the instructions through to ensure you have all the necessary fabrics, notions and understanding to complete the project.
  • Pencil-mark the relevant steps to the particular version of the pattern you've chosen to make – this will help you avoid following any alternate instructions erroneously. (Yes, I learned this the hard way.)
  • Prepare a bobbin with more than enough thread to ensure it won't run out mid-seam.
  • When cutting fabric I've discovered it's easier (being right-handed) to cut in a clockwise direction. This keeps my scissor blade better aligned with the pattern edge without causing as much a gap between pattern and fabric. I assume the opposite direction may be best for left-handed cutters.
  • Cut with long, even slices. Short cuts tend to create a more jagged fabric edge.
  • Where there may be confusion later, mark the "front" (or the "good") side of fabric with a basted stitch of contrasting thread which can be easily removed later.
  • Pin frequently and closely: to avoid pattern-gapping during the fabric-cutting process – serious problems can result from a poorly cut fabric; and, to avoid sewing problems like puckering or seam allowance folding.
  • Iron frequently. Coupled with pinning, this helps keep fabrics from creasing which can also create bunching or unwanted folds in seam lines.
  • Using small remnants of the fabric(s) you are sewing, fold as necessary to represent the layers you will be sewing, and use these to accurately establish the perfect tension on your machine. Reset the tension whenever the layering changes. Make a note of each of these settings so you can quickly reset the tension as required.
  • When threading elastic, make sure to "anchor" the hind-end with another safety pin to prevent it from slipping inside the opening before you're able to join the ends.
  • And, perhaps the hardest lesson: When in doubt, rip it out! On my second project – sewing some pyjamas for my grandchild – I made an error very early in the project. I hesitated, feeling something was amiss, but, rushed by a Christmas deadline, I hurried on. Later, I came to regret that decision when I discovered the problem and had to seam-rip the entire project back to that point. Ugh! Not fun. And, a royal waste of precious time!
Top left: ironed fabric; Middle left: pattern lay-out; Bottom left: first stitches;
Top right: pressing seams; Middle right: attach lining; Bottom right: elastic ready for threading;
Centre: hang for 24 hours before hemming.
Certainly there is a time-cost to sewing. Not all projects need be overly time-consuming, however. The skirt I've featured in the photo collage was produced in approximately three hours. (The pattern had already been cut for a previous project.) I must admit, though, that time spent sewing doesn't feel like a "cost" to me. Craft work is fun and this one offers me immense gratification with tangible, practical, and functional results. Happily, too, the clothes have been longer lasting and better fitting than what I'm able to find in most retail shops.

As this blog goes to post, my new skirt has hung for 24 hours and is now ready for hemming. Then, it's on to the next project: another new blouse. I'll be in the sewing room, if anyone needs me...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Noodling Around

It may or may not be thrifty, but noodling around is fun…and delicious.

If you wonder why I say pasta- or noodle-making may or may not be thrifty, I'll tell you. We buy bulk quantities of both whole-grain durum-wheat flour and all-purpose flour, and use a 50-50 mixture of these. We buy our eggs from a local farm at greatly reduced prices. And we buy bulk containers of olive oil. These key ingredients are used in such small proportions of the whole the actual cost per recipe is mere pennies. If we were to buy the usual grocery store sized products, costs would rise dramatically and be closer to parity with commercially-made dried pasta. So, for us, using products bought in bulk and at much reduced prices, achieves tremendous saving over store-bought noodles, particularly if using "fresh" pasta.

Now, some will note that "time is money" and making pasta is much more time consuming than using store-bought. This time cost decreases over time, though. The more often you make the recipe, the more familiar it becomes and the process goes much quicker. For us, taste and texture make this time well spent.


The savings achieved isn't the main reason for making home-made pasta. Sauces adhere better to home-made noodles. The boiling water doesn't foam up like it is prone to do with store-bought pastas. Home-made pastas cook much more quickly than commercial pastas, either fresh or dried. And, as a bonus, sodium content can be controlled.

But, these are all just niceties.

The main reason we make our own pasta is flavour. Flavour is king! Particularly since I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and I began working to lower it and get my weight down. If I must enforce portion controls and endure a reduced-sodium diet, I want the foods I do eat to pack a flavour punch. Pasta isn't the biggest, boldest flavour on the plate, certainly, so any boost it can get is fabulous, in my view.

We had the good fortune to inherit my mother's pasta machine, but they aren't a necessity. There are several simple shapes that can be made with a rolling pin, a paring knife and a few other common kitchen utensils. Here's a handy article by RecipeTips.com which gives measurements and instructions on cutting and shaping pasta by hand.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Brushing Up on Dental Care


This week's subject took seed months ago and, finally, I can share results. In previous posts, I've mentioned a few merits of baking soda (e.g. Odour Takes a Powder & Atmospheric Disturbances.) Along with vinegar, lemon and salt, soda is part of my "wonder-products" arsenal – commonly found in most stores, safe for family and environment, marvellously effective for a multitude of household purposes, and, with the occasional exception of lemons, inexpensive. I'm always searching for new uses and applications.

So, last winter, when my sensitive teeth acted up, I began an experiment. The traditional, brand-name toothpaste I had been using made my teeth feel electrified after brushing. Sensitivity toothpaste (also brand-name,) helped lessen the sensation, but my teeth didn't feel clean – the paste coats my mouth in a very unpleasant way. I acknowledge that these effects could have been due, in part, to the hard water here in Cache Creek but, regardless the reasons, the store-bought toothpastes just weren't working well for me. I decided to try a mixture I remembered from childhood, one my mother used whenever toothpaste ran out: baking soda and salt. Back then, I didn't much like it. There was no sweet, minty flavour and no foam. But, with "electric" teeth, I figured anything was worth a try.

Results came quickly. Within a day, all sensitivity was gone. Within a week, my teeth were visibly whiter. Brushing with the mixture left my teeth pearly smooth and, unlike regular toothpastes, didn't stimulate a mucinous response. Okay, I still don't care much for the flavour, but now I actually prefer the lack of foaming action. I wondered, though, what the long term effects of using the mixture would be. Would the soda and/or salt damage tooth enamel? Would plaque build-up quicker? Would breath odours be neutralized?

This week, I went for my first dental cleaning in over six years. Gasp! I know. With no aspersions to the clinic's staff – which is very friendly, attentive, and professional – dental appointments have always caused me serious trepidation. A combination of sensitive teeth and Temporomandibular Joint disorder (or TMJ syndrome) can make even a simple cleaning painful. I've never had strong tooth enamel, either, so check-ups normally resulted in a filling or two.

This check-up was drastically different. First, I had no cavities. None. Nada. Wow! Assessments like that happen so rarely, I can count previous incidents on one hand and still have digits uncounted. I asked, pointedly – after explaining I have been brushing with soda and (powdered) salt for about ten months – if there were signs of damage to tooth enamel, or if plaque build-up was excessive. Before answering, my doctor asked how long it had been since my last check-up. Though her eyebrows shot up when I told her, she withheld any rebuke and said my teeth were in good condition "given the lapse of time." Though they were in need of de-scaling, "plaque was not excessive and tooth enamel appeared unmarred." Surprisingly, she was unconcerned with my choice to brush with a soda-salt mixture. Her only caution was to advise both can affect blood-pressure (mine is high) so I should avoid ingesting the mixture. Not something I'm tempted to do, anyway, so that's not a problem.

Not everyone has sensitive teeth, though. Many are repulsed, either by the salty taste or by using a powder. This mixture (4:1, soda to powdered salt) won't appeal to everyone. But, for those who want a more natural tooth cleaner, one that not only cleans ably and economically, but also reduces (or eliminates) tooth sensitivities and brightens teeth, this mixture has plenty of merit. One unexpected bonus: drinking citrus juice after brushing with it doesn't prompt shuddering.

Oh, and for those who wonder, hubby says my breath smells sweet. Yes, I flashed him my freshly-cleaned smile.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Politics of Thrift


There is a bias against thrift. To some it means impoverishment, stinginess, poor quality, or low status. Advertisers tell us, in overt and subliminal messages that consuming their products will make us happy. They insist we must have the newer model, or to spend more frequently to be satisfied. And consumerism runs amok, leaving burgeoning landfills to bear witness to the glut.

First, thrift isn't about doing without. It's about doing the most with what you have. Shopping smart and purchasing only when necessary and with long term perspectives in mind, are the foundations of thrift. It's not about buying the cheapest item. It's about the cost per use: the item's packaging, its healthfulness, its recyclability and its durability. Most of these have long term costs which are less obvious, but no less pricey. Durability has direct impact on any product's cost per use: the longer the product's lifetime, the less cost per use and the longer the item survives outside a landfill. So, in a very real way, thrift is one expression of caring for the environment.

I've heard it insinuated by financial pundits that spend-thrifts are withholding from the economy and that makes them "unpatriotic." I couldn't disagree more. Thrift is conscious consuming, and thereby one of the truest economic acts. It supports businesses which offer the best quality, longest lasting products at reasonable prices. Supply and demand are the foundations of a vigorous marketplace. Avid consumption for the sake of numbers on a ticker, with absolute disregard for struggling eco- and social systems only distorts the ideals of a "free" economy. Thrift respects human need and works to balance that with the short- and long-term costs of resources.

There is no shame in thrift. Advertisers perpetuate a modern mythology in which thrift is the cave where the boogie man dwells. It can be, if one believes the myth. Thrift, for some, is an unavoidable and seemingly bitter result of economic downturn. For those who choose it, thrift is liberating: tastier, healthier, and a much more satisfying lifestyle. There is mania in working to keep pace with the demands of a greedy marketplace and the competitive consumerism it provokes. And ploys like planned obsolescence work against even the thriftiest consumer. It's not the frugal shopper who's to blame for a weakened economy. Thrifty people, more than most, are voting with their dollars. Thrifty people are choosing healthier foods and products, sold at reasonable prices, and questioning how much junk they'll be forced to send to a landfill. This is not seditious. Nor is it denial of comfort. Thrift is taking control of life in tangible ways.

Thrift is the strongest voice the people have.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Re-Purposing Canning Jars


Years ago we had a large garden and delighted in the bounty of fresh vegetables. At the end of each growing season, we froze and canned food, enough to last the winter, sometimes longer. Canning meant buying an assortment of jars, sizes varying from half-pint to quart, and that considerable investment took a few summers to get the quantities and variety needed. Just when our jar collection was complete, we moved. In fact, we've moved five times since, and gardens haven't always been available or, if they were, their space was far more limited. So, barring exceptions when seasonal produce goes on sale, we don't can as much anymore. The jars, however, (aside from serving as ballast during our all-too-frequent moves,) remain in good condition. We've simply needed to re-purpose them.

A few years ago, we opened an "economy-size" bag of fried noodles, used what we needed, and then stored the remainder in a plastic container because the bag could not be sealed tightly enough to keep the noodles fresh. However, less than a month later, when we opened that container, the noodles were rancid. They had reacted badly with the plastic and the smell was noxious. Worse, that odour permeated the plastic so thoroughly it transferred to any other food we stored in the container. Eventually, after cleaning it with a variety of odour-eliminating products, without success, we were forced to toss the container. That's when we began using canning jars for storing such foods.

  • They seal well enough to keep food fresh.
  • They offer a better vapour barrier than most plastic containers – stored foods like sugar or salt or household products like bath salts can clump easily when exposed to the slightest humidity.
  • They don't take on flavours or absorb odours like most plastics do
This latter realization saved hubby's lunch. He loves to take home-made yogurt to work for a snack, but the plastic containers he used presented problems. First of all, they leaked. Despite having tight-fitting lids, yogurt still managed to seep out. Secondly, those plastic containers had taken on flavours from leftovers, and those savoury tastes were undesirable seasoning for yogurt. Having just performed our little experiment with fried noodles, I suggested using half-pint jars for his purpose. They worked so well, hubby's used them ever since and for a variety of snacks from canned peaches to nuts. Now, his snacks tastes as they should and the lids don't leak. He no longer finds the rest of his lunch coated in yogurt or syrup. Hubby tells me the glass container actually keeps food cooler than plastic did. Bonus.

It was when I saw hubby placing the first jar in his lunchbox that a childhood memory flashed through my mind. At one school my sister attended, there was a unique lunch option. Children brought jars of food from home, marked with their name and classroom. These were collected early, reheated in the school's kitchen, and then returned to the classroom at lunch hour. Instead of packing sandwiches every day, children could enjoy a variety of meals. Since hubby was getting bored with sandwiches, I used this idea for his lunch. First, we had to find a lunchbox heater – it looks like a small cooler, but plugs into a vehicle's cigarette lighter and heats to 300ยบ F. Once we had that small appliance, hubby began enjoying leftover stews, soups and casseroles. Instead of the usual sealer lid, however, I replaced it a small square of aluminum foil and then put the screw-on lid over that. When lunchtime nears, hubby need only poke a few holes in the aluminum foil, place it in the heater and half an hour later, hot lunch is ready. I've used this same method for home lunches, too. Instead of the lunchbox heater, though, I place the jar in a pot of hot water and let it simmer about ten minutes. Jars also take up less of a footprint in the fridge than one large container of leftovers simply because they can be stacked.

There is one drawback to using canning jars. The sealer lids are now coated with Bisphenol-A. If you're lucky enough to find glass lids and rubber rings you can avoid contact with this harmful chemical. We've never found them. However, most of the foods we store never come in contact with the lid. For foods that do, a barrier of wax paper or aluminum foil can prevent direct contact.

One of the handiest applications for jars I've seen (while watching a favourite do-it-yourself show,) used half-pint jars. The handyman nailed lids (the sealer lid with its screw-top fastener) to a board, about an inch separating each, and then mounted the board above his work-bench. Then, he put various nuts, bolts, and screws into separate jars and screwed those onto the lids. The clear glass allowed him to easily identify the hardware he needed, and they were conveniently located yet out of his work area. No more rummaging through dilapidated boxes, or finicky storage containers searching for the necessary item. I haven't yet tried this, but am planning a "spice rack" with a couple modifications to this idea.

Canning Jars, re-purposed
Sealers, because the glass is inert and they have such a good seal, also make good storage containers for toxic items like shoe-polishing rags or paint thinner. No doubt there are many uses for canning jars I haven't yet discovered but, now that we've begun looking for them, the possibilities seem endless. The jars have, once again, become assets, not just ballast.

How about you? Do you re-purpose canning jars? Please leave a comment and share your ideas.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Season of Discount-ment


Some people go crazy for shoe sales. For others, it's garage sales. Me? I'm drawn to stationery sales like Dorothy to Oz – books and pens and gizmos, oh my! The urge to run down stationery aisles, gleefully scooping supplies into my shopping basket, is almost irresistible.

I was hooked on my very first shopping excursion for grade-school supplies (too many years ago to mention.) Coming home with a horde of unsharpened pencils, pristine notebooks, and unspoiled paraphernalia was, to me, fabulous bounty. Even now, decades later, whenever August arrives and stationery specials begin I'm as gleeful as a kid at Christmas. My children are grown, raising children of their own, and still these specials excite me! Without the incurable condition known as frugality, I'd surely run amok, ravaging our budget procuring multi-coloured sticky notes, nifty journals, gel pens, and handy-dandy what-cha-ma-call-its.

But there's no point in denying need. I used to avoid stationery stores simply because I could "fall off the wagon" and our budget might suffer for it. The problem with this approach was, eventually any home office requires a few essentials. Avoidance wasn't preparing me for ultimate temptation. Then I began writing and a genuine need arose for pens, journals, envelopes, printer ink and paper, and, yes, multi-coloured sticky notes – the usual tools of the craft. Somehow, I had to control the compulsiveness.

Seasonal shopping rescued me. Once I began saving for August, basing those savings on previous years' spending, then buying necessary office supplies became guilt-free. Like any impulse-shopper, I learned to control it by making a list, and buying items only on the list – no in-store additions! That said, I don't just buy one journal; I buy five or six – enough to last a year, and the savings equate to getting one (sometimes two, depending on the sale) free. I don't buy a couple pens; I buy a box. Half the box is usually free due to seasonal savings. I don't buy one ream of printer paper; I get a box of ten reams, on sale, paying nearly half the price per ream and getting enough to last approximately two years (or longer.) Each year the shopping list changes – things like staples or paper clips last years – but, the monetary preparation and planned excursions eliminated stationery shopping as a threat to monthly budgets.

Back-to-school specials introduced me to seasonal shopping and I was a quick convert. If it could conquer my stationery addiction, what astonishing deeds might it perform on other expenses? Soon, I was shopping seasonally for all the non-monthly, household necessities. A little money, set aside each month, is saved for linens, for household maintenance, for kitchen utensils, for small appliances...the list goes on. Now, when the "White Sales" happen in May, there's money for new sheets or towels. In March, we have funds available when gardening supplies go on sale. We even put aside a monthly stipend for gift giving, which comes in handy in January, when holiday goodies get marked down. Often, we don't use all the money we've salted away, but that just leaves extra for either the purchase of better quality goods, or kept in reserve for future purchases. Occasionally need – or fabulous pricing – cause over-spending the saved amount...but those small excesses are temporarily absorbed by savings for other categories, and are always recovered within a month.

Of the numerous ways of managing household budget, seasonal shopping produced the greatest stabilizing effect on ours. Instead of allowing the many, varied and irregular expenditures to catch us short, we now have savings for most items we'll inevitably need. And, because money is reserved for various purposes, we are better able to take advantage of sales when they happen. Savings realized at a good sale can be dramatic. So, though we're no richer than before, this capacity to buy what's needed, when sale prices are best, not only provides us with material comforts, it produces peace of mind knowing we are maintaining a realistic budget without using credit. No more month-to-month struggle, feeling overworked just "making ends meet." Somehow work seems less onerous now that home is thriving.

If you're interested in planning your own seasonal shopping schedule, here's a helpful article, by Nikki Willhite, offering information on yearly sales and when they regularly occur: All Things Frugal: Shopping the Seasonal Sales. It doesn't matter if you're into shoes or linen; there's a prime time, each year, to buy whatever your personal weakness may be. If you're denying need just to control a shopping addiction, take charge by finding its season of discount-ment!

Me? I'll be in a stationery aisle, somewhere, yearly budget in mind and shopping list in hand: the giddy grandma humming the popular ad, "It's the most, wonderful time of the year..." ♪♪♪

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pinching Salt


Recently, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. My doctor prescribed low-dose diuretics, exercise, and a low-sodium diet. Normally, I avoid prescription medicines, but the diuretics – and the exercise – were a must. Only two weeks after that initial appointment, results of implementing just these two recommendations were apparent in significantly reduced blood pressure.

The only remaining challenge – other than finding the early morning motivation to rise and exercise – was in figuring out how to decrease sodium intake. For years now, we've been altering the foods we eat to serve this and other healthful purposes: buying far fewer (if any) pre-packaged foods, mixes, sauces, stock, etc.; quitting soda consumption altogether; and very seldom buying junk foods (potato chips, fast foods, etc.) Most of what we eat is made "from scratch" and we often make recipe substitutions (or alterations) to reduce sodium, trans- and hydrolyzed-vegetable fats and sugar. There are few components of our diet that we haven't tweaked to make healthier. Even boiling water for pasta is much less saline than it once was.

So, where hadn't we adjusted sodium intake? After thoroughly examining our diet, I found the one area we hadn't touched: the salt shaker. And its use makes actual intake so much harder to gauge. Just how much salt is sprinkled to pre-season meat? Just how much is added on the dinner plate?

Hoping to consume less sodium, I considered switching to a commercial brand of seasoning salt. However, when I researched the available products, I became discouraged. Each brand contained some ingredient we avoid. One label seemed misleading, too. A popular brand contains sugar but, rather than list that carbohydrate on the nutritional label, it omits that category altogether.

Instead, I decided to make our own, and found a very tasty recipe online (About.com: Seasoned Salt recipe). The recipe suggests garlic and celery salts, but I used garlic powder and celery seeds. Even with these adjustments, the mixture is still 75% sodium. However, that's 25% less than regular table salt and, since we're now measuring the use of this substitute, we're consuming much less added sodium than ever before. Each "smidgen" (1/32 teaspoon) contains approximately 55 mg of sodium. General recommendations for daily sodium intake are between 2 and 3 grams (2000-3000 mg), so each smidgen is equivalent to 2.75% of the lower suggested amount. I went a step further and halved the amount of salt used in the recipe, effectively decreasing those percentages while still delivering a delicious flavour profile.

Flavour is, after all, the reason the salt shaker was being used. This mixture (even the 37.5% sodium blend) packs a huge flavour-punch! Wherever possible, it now replaces regular salt in daily cooking and makes sodium-reduced meals unusually delectable. Better yet, unlike commercial brands, this home-made seasoned salt contains: no MSG; no sugar; no flavour- or colour-enhancers; no fillers (like corn starch), no hydrolyzed vegetable protein, no lecithin (of which hubby is very sensitive), and, no anti-clumping chemicals (such as tricalcium sulphate.) Another benefit of preparing home-made seasonings isn't, perhaps, immediately apparent. The recent, massive recall of pre-packaged spice blends was stark illustration of other possible and uncontrollable health risks in consuming commercial blends. None of the whole and powdered spices we use in this concoction were involved in that recall.

Now that I've tried this mixture, I'm (almost) happy for the diagnosis that prompted its discovery. It tastes so good that hubby is now using it, too. A startling result as he once used the salt shaker with abandon. This seasoning, though intended only for my welfare, is also reducing hubby's sodium intake...no nagging required!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Adventures in Geo-Caching


Last weekend, hubby and I set out upon our very first geo-caching adventure. What a blast! A Sunday drive and hike has never been so much fun...even though it meant rising pre-dawn so we could get our trekking done before the worst heat of the day.


We had been looking for some other purpose for our hikes aside from foraging. Then we discovered geo-caching in this region. If you haven't heard of this activity before, it's a treasure hunt. Cache boxes are hidden in various places and it's up to you, the hiker/mountain-biker/adventurer, to find them. GPS navigation is most often used, but some regions offer traditional positioning clues – directions to the location providing compass headings and pace measurements. Once the cache is found, you sign the cache log book and take a site-sticker for your record of sites visited. While you're at it, check out some of the other people who were there before you. Geo-caching is a global activity, so you may discover entries by visiting hikers from faraway lands. The cache-boxes contain nothing of any substantial value, but inside you'll likely find trinkets left behind by other hikers. You can take one IF you leave a trinket of your own in its place. No food, though, as it attracts animals.


By far, the greatest reward is quality time spent with loved ones. But there are other intangible treasures: the discovery of new places, the nuggets of learning gleaned from local legends, and a bounty of exercise in exploration. Bring a picnic lunch and your prize can include some much-coveted relaxation gilded by a dazzling vista.




A day away from holding down the couch couldn't be better spent! And, it's FREE! The only cost is fuel and, depending how far your chosen cache sites are, that is relatively inexpensive compared to other activities. A field guide is sold locally, but we downloaded and printed relevant pages, free of charge, off the Internet site.


Here in "Gold Country" caches are distributed widely and near sites of interest. Our local field guide (Gold Country Geo-Tourism) not only supplies GPS co-ordinates and "letterbox clues" to each location, it also provides interesting synopses, providing historical and anecdotal information for each site. The sites themselves are divided into various categories: Pioneers & Early Settlers; Gravesites & Mystical Places; Geological Wonders; Historic Churches; and, Views & Vistas. Some sites are clustered in close proximity to each other, while others are singularly placed and take you farther afield. Once stickers for twenty-four sites are collected, we can send away for a souvenir-prize pin. Who knows? Some day it might just end up traded in a geo-cache in some other part of the world.


On our first expedition, we hunted for two caches. We don't own a GPS, so we followed the "letterbox clues" and thought it was very entertaining. The first cache, up Scottie Creek road, we found with relative ease. The second one, at Downing Lake Park, eluded us. But the hike wasn't wasted. Our circuitous route took us to new and beautiful places, and we took every opportunity to forage a little as we hiked through those newly discovered territories. Hubby also scouted promising hunting areas which he'll likely return to in the fall. As the blistering summer sun climbed the sky, we meandered back via a lonely country back road, arriving home thoroughly sated – body mind, and spirit – with 84 pictures of stunning natural beauty as proof of our first journey.


Most geo-cache guides are posted on the Internet so, if you're looking for inexpensive adventures, quests which guide you in a more intimate exploration of your region, check out local geo-caching opportunities. You're sure to discover your own priceless treasures!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Update: Odour Takes a Powder


Back in January I posted a blog about an easy home-made deodorant. At the end of that post, I mentioned I was working to find a comparable liquid form for summer. After some research and a few test trials, those results are now ready to share.

The first concoction I researched was another simple recipe consisting of one tablespoon of alum dissolved in one cup of warm water and (optionally) scented with a drop or spritz of a favourite perfume or cologne. Ammonium alum is available at most compound pharmacies, and is intended for topical use. Its price was reasonable: $4.49 (Can) for 125 grams, which is enough for eight (nearly nine) preparations, each supplying eight ounces of liquid deodorant. It seemed a great option until I began researching the ammonium alum. This double sulfate, also known as ammonium aluminum sulphate, is made from aluminum hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and ammonium sulfate. Though this chemical is said to be non-toxic, I was concerned when I read the words "aluminum hydroxide." That mineral is used in the production of aluminum chloride, a common ingredient in commercial deodorants and the one which has been linked to Alzheimer's, breast cancer and respiratory problems. I'm certainly no chemist, but I was reluctant to use this fluid for the same reason I avoid commercial brands.

Next I checked out a cream deodorant. It involves a little more processing, but it's still a relatively simple recipe using common ingredients. To prepare it, mix equal parts of baking soda, petroleum jelly and talcum powder (I substituted corn starch) in a double-boiler and dissolve the mixture over low heat, stirring frequently until a smooth cream develops. Put the preparation in a container – preferably glass – with a tight-fitting lid. This cream is applied by hand so, to avoid its contamination, I prepared small batches. The cream works effectively; however its greatest drawback was the oily residue it left on clothing. This stain proved resistant to laundering and, for this reason, I don't recommend it. Why ruin clothes with oil stains? There's no frugality in that.

In continuing my research for a home-made liquid deodorant, I performed experiments with water and baking soda. The usual bicarbonate effect happened though, and when the bubbling activity subsided, all that was left was an insoluble mass of soda sunk to the bottom of the water. Subsequently, I tried a mixture of equal parts baking soda and glycerine. This resulted in a loose cream which could be applied by hand but, while it worked effectively, the skin felt too sticky for comfort.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing formula I discovered was a deodorant tea, which works from the inside out. The recipe calls for a mix of equal quantities of sage leaves, parsley, alfalfa, and melilot (also known as sweet clover.) This herbaceous mixture will deteriorate in light and so should be made in small quantities and then stored in an opaque container. To prepare the tea, brew ½ to 2 teaspoons of the mix in ½ cup hot water and steep a few minutes. The instructions did not specify ingesting daily, only "regularly." I presume its use is dependent on one's personal need.

The tea got me thinking, though. If these herbs and plants can have a deodorizing effect, then the reverse must also be true: some foods, drinks and spices must contribute to body odour. From personal experience, I can attest that consuming certain foods – beef, fried foods, alcoholic beverages, and spices and herbs such as curry or garlic – does indeed produce unsavoury body odours. Even the strongest commercial deodorants only mask their (often foul) emanations. So, I have begun to take note of various foods which produce those unpleasant results, and now eat them only occasionally.

Ultimately, I ended up back at the beginning. The original powder formula – equal parts baking soda and corn starch – remains my favourite. And, I needn't have been concerned about "powdery armpits." This deodorant, it turns out, disappears very quickly after application, to become as invisible as any commercial brand. Unlike those store-bought deodorants, however, this powder, if it ends up on clothing, is easily brushed off or laundered out. Its cost – only pennies per bi-weekly batch – also makes it a thrifty choice for budget-conscious households.

So, with all the experimentation behind me, I'm back to using the original powder preparation and am pleased to report my underarms are tank-top friendly.

Have you got a home-preparation I haven't tried? If so, I'd like to hear about it. Please leave a comment to share your formula and observations.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Flower Power


This sixties' slogan, used to express passive resistance, perfectly describes the organic-garden flower. Flowers in these gardens are more than mere eye-candy. Companioned with other plants, they are part of a seemingly innocuous force working diligently to create a holistic environment.

For me, the most delightful things about certain flowers are their culinary prospects! Sweet or spicy, mild or bold flavoured, flowers add colourful zing and exotic flair to any plate. Just be certain the flowers come from a safe environment. Foraging is fine, but don't use plants found along a busy highway where exhaust fumes contaminate them, or city parks where chemical treatments are frequently applied. If you use pesticides or herbicides in the garden, then, for goodness sake, don't eat your daisies!

Some edible flowers have the brilliant ability to repel garden pests, too. Anise Hyssop keeps cabbage moths away, and its flowers add a delicate licorice flavour to dishes. Nasturtiums add vibrant colour and pepper to salads but, in the garden, aphids and squash bugs avoid them. Calendula or marigolds, poster-children for passive pest resistance, repel mosquitoes, moles, tomato horn worms and bean beetles, to name a few. Edible flowers beautify the garden while defending against most garden nibblers...all except the gardener who enjoys their spice and colour on the dinner plate.

Not all flowers are repellent to pests; some just taste good. Alliums lend a mild oniony-garlic flavour to the breakfast scramble. A salad gets a colourful pop and flavourful zing with a few violets or rose petals Edible flowers, whether mild, sweet, peppery, savoury or bitter, take an everyday dish and elevate it to the extraordinary. Some flowers, such as squash blossoms, will even stand up to cooking. Others, like hibiscus blooms, are best when brewed into teas. Many edible flowers are those of the edible herbs, including basil, chervil, cilantro, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, rosemary and sage. These herbal flowers, though tasting similar, are more delicately flavoured than the leaves or seeds.

The paradox of garden flowers is their ability to either attract or repel. Flowers like delphiniums or honeysuckle attract pollinators like hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The poisonous delphinium should never be eaten, but the beautiful creatures they attract are necessary to any natural habitat. Those critters do little to control harmful pests, though. For that purpose there are flowers, such as those in the daisy family, which attract the innocuous ladybug, who then dines on destructive mites and aphids. Asters or black-eyed Susans attract lacewings which gobble aphids and caterpillars. Sunflowers attract insect eating birds. Sweet smelling peonies will attract predators of root-eaters such as grubs. So, by strategically placing certain flowers among vegetables and herbs, gardens can flourish without using pesticides.

The third quality of the flower power trifecta is their nutritional and medicinal properties. The effects of some flowers are subtle, while others can be very potent. For this reason, it's advisable to thoroughly research the flowers you plan to consume to better understand their active properties and applications. Some can be ingested while others are used only topically. Your research may prove surprising: Echinacea is commonly known to have medicinal properties, but did you know day lily tea is also therapeutic? It's surprising the number of common flowers and herbs – and some weeds, too – which have healing and/or soothing qualities. There are even flowers higher in anti-oxidant vitamins (like Vitamin C) than commonly eaten fruits and vegetables.

So liberate your flowers from their ornamental status. Put them to work in your garden and kitchen. Their passive resistance to pests of all stripes will at least reduce or at best eliminate the need for pesticides. Then, while enjoying their floral beauty, you can count your savings, dine on the fruits of their labour, and perhaps even attain healing. Now that's flower power!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Wild Thing, I Think I Love You




Foraging is seasonal eating at its most primal. It's also a gastronomic dividend for hiking the wilderness. Not only can foraging provide fresh foods at their peak, those foods (if sold commercially), sell for premium prices. Fine dining restaurants pay top dollar for morel mushrooms, fresh brook trout, tender ramps, or wild strawberries. So, for the eager forager, a day's hike and exploration can yield culinary gold.

Fishing and/or hunting provide one of the costliest items for many grocery budgets: meat for the table (or freezer.) Licensing and fuel costs can be off-set by the successful enthusiast who brings home a catch of fish, a brace of fowl, or fresh game. But, these activities aren't for everyone.

For those who don't hunt, nor enjoy flaying the water for fish, there are other foods to forage which don't require a gun, rod or license. Wild vegetables like onions, leeks (ramps), dandelions (roots, greens and flowers,) pigweed (also known as Lamb's Quarters), fiddlehead ferns, horseradish and skunk cabbage are all exotic ingredients which bring powerful flavour profiles to the larder. Various berries and nuts grow in different regions, and are available from spring through fall. Mushrooms, too, have a range of seasons and locales, though you'll want to use extreme caution when picking the wild varieties. Know exactly which mushrooms you're picking – if you don't, they're not worth the poisoning risk. Spruce buds, rose-hips, and other herbage and flowers, fresh or dried, can be used in tasty and nutritious teas and tisanes, or as cooking ingredients. Some have medicinal properties so you'll want to carefully research your foraged foods to be sure of their effects. Wild honey and honeycomb are rare and golden treasures, but only for adventurous scavengers who don't suffer anaphylaxis.

Most local governments (provincial, state, and regional) offer informational web-sites on native foods, where they can be legally gathered, how to properly identify them, when they are in season, and what their ideal environs are. Here's a web-site I stumbled upon (Herbal Odyssey) which offers several books by Jim Meuninck on foraging and other related topics, and provides links to comprehensive information on a wide variety of edible plants. Once the research is done, you can mark your calendar with the various scavenging opportunities you've discovered for your area.

So, if you enjoy the wilderness, enjoy getting out into the back country for a hike, try foraging during your next outdoor adventure. Not every scavenging hunt will meet with success, but when you do find forage, you'll bring home some very exclusive culinary delights for your pantry.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Marinade Magic

Whether you are vegetarian or a meat-eater, marinades are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to enhance foods. These magical liquids not only impart flavour, they frequently reduce cooking times, and can also tenderize tougher cuts of meat.

Acid and oil are the basic ingredients, the yin and yang of most marinades, carefully balanced depending on the food and the purpose for its curing. Acid is not entirely accurate. Sometimes alcohol is used as the chemical component of the marinade but its cooking and tissue-softening effects are similar.

  1. The acid used most frequently is some form of acetic acid: white, red wine, rice, or balsamic vinegars; or, highly acidic fruits such as lemons, limes, and some tomatoes. Beers and ales, dry wines like sherry, and grain alcohols like Saki or bourbon work best in marinades for tougher, more robust-flavoured meat proteins. The alcohol will cook off, but its tenderizing effect and aromatic flavours remain.
  2. The oils can be anything from common corn or canola oils to specialty nut and olive oils. Herb-flavoured oils have delicate flavour profiles and are better suited to light-flavoured contrasts with vegetables, low-fat seafood or pale meats. Butter, though rarely used, should be clarified.

Generally, vegetables are marinated to impart flavour before grilling or braising and, because they contain no natural fat, their marinades often include a more generous ratio of oil to acid and marination will be brief (15-30 minutes.) Recipes intended to chemically-cook vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut) generally use marinades with a higher acid to oil ratio and require a longer marination – 24 hours, at least.

Seafood proteins which are low in fat – like cod, trout, or sole – will require marinades with more oil than acid and, because the delicate tissue is quickly affected by the acid, a short marination time (15-30 minutes) is best. Shell fish and other higher fat content seafood can handle a more acidic marinade but even these tougher fish proteins will breakdown and become unpalatably mushy if marinated too long.

Animal proteins are the costliest portion of many grocery budgets. Of the few ways to control this expenditure, one is to choose a tougher, so-called "lesser" cut of meat and treat it with a little marinade magic. Prime cuts might cook faster and without the aid of marinade, but there's a prime price to pay at the check-out for their convenience. Utility grades, however, can be transformed into melt-in-your-mouth good if allowed some quality time in a flavourful infusion. Beef and pork generally require longer marination – anywhere from 6 to 48 hours – but the savings will merely be the bonus to a very tender and tasty meal.

Marinades, themselves, cost very little to make. Depending on the type and quality of ingredients you choose, they can cost mere pennies to an extravagant few dollars. With a few culturally specific ingredients marinades can turn an ordinary meal into international cuisine: olive oil with red wine vinegar, garlic and oregano adds an Italian flare, while peanut oil with Saki, soy sauce, ginger and garlic brings flavours of the Orient.

Most marinades can be cooked after the soak is completed, to become a complimentary sauce for the meal. If the marinade is used on raw meat proteins it must be brought to a boil and cooked a few minutes to ensure safe eating. So, if time constraints prevent this cautionary step, simply set aside some of the untainted marinade for later use as a dipping sauce. If reducing your concoctions, be aware that concentrating the sauce will intensify flavours, including salt, so use high-sodium ingredients, like soy sauce, sparingly. If saltiness might be an issue, you can thicken the marinade with a little corn starch instead of reducing the sauce.

Whatever you're cooking, be it a vegetable medley or flank steak, marinades add a gourmet touch. Apply their magic and your grocery budget will gain value, too!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Recall

It's been two months since the initial recalls of foods containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) were issued in Canada and the United States. During that time I've received several updates (via subscription) from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Their list of contaminated products grows with each bulletin. HVP is used in prepared foods as a flavour enhancer, so most of the affected foods are ready-made products such as soups, dips, sauces, dressings, snacks, and seasoning blends. For many households, the recall resulted in the loss of hundreds of dollars of groceries. Our damages totalled $3.69 – a seldom used taco seasoning which wasn't listed for recall but, because it caused symptoms of salmonella poisoning, was tossed just to be safe.

Simply because we don't buy ready-made foods anymore, our pantry was spared a great purge. Soups, stews, sauces, and gravies are made from scratch using home-made stock. We blend our own spices and rarely eat processed meats. We've sworn off most snack foods and prefer the recipes we've gathered for making dips and dressings. With complete certainty, we feel our home-cooking lifestyle is the reason our larder was scarcely touched by one of the biggest food recalls in history.

It began small but we've expanded our home-cooking repertoire over the last ten years. While I've always baked cakes, cookies and some bread from scratch, we once used "convenience" foods frequently. Having (literally) bought in to advertising hype, we thought they were "time-savers." It was my sensitivity to high sodium content that first spurred a change in our food purchases. Next, hubby's growing intolerance to lecithin (a common stabilizer in most bread and broad range of other prepared foods) became cause for concern and a few more items were dropped from our shopping list. Then "middle-aged spread" demanded we examine the sources and types of fats we were consuming, and that analysis led to another change in buying and cooking habits. Each modification resulted in fewer processed and ready-made food purchases. Surprisingly, the difference in our overall cooking time amounted to just a few minutes more. However, the return on our investment turned out to be a huge boost in flavours.

One completely unexpected result of eliminating our consumption of processed foods has been our increasing repulsion of them. This distaste grew in direct proportion to the number of prepared foods struck from our diet. Products we once enjoyed, that smelled fine and tasted good, now smell and taste awful, their odours and flavours repelling rather than attracting. For that reason, eating out has become a challenge, too. Smells wafting from fast food diners make us grimace and it's getting harder and harder to find family-style restaurants that use real, fresh ingredients. Fine dining establishments are one of the few places using good quality ingredients but, since their pricing keeps them on our "treat" list, we rarely eat out. Instead, we're learning to prepare gourmet dishes ourselves. The plates aren't styled as beautifully, but we eat fabulously and for much less cost.

Without getting into the nasty detail of age, I'll just say I was raised in a time when home-cooking was the usual way meals and snacks were prepared. Sure, my mother kept a boxed cake mix on hand just in case unexpected guests dropped in but, mainly, she made meals from scratch. Most mothers did. What really concerns me is that manufactured food is now becoming the norm. Home-cooking is the exception, not the rule. According to cooking shows I watch, fresh produce is unidentifiable by many children today. This can't be good for society as a whole. It seems corporate interests have overpowered government controls and the result is diminishing regulation of the food industry. And, "industry" is an apt description for the chemical concoctions on offer.

Is this recall merely a harbinger of worse to come? Is home-cooking in danger of extinction? Is the slow-food revolution merely a flash in the pan? Sorry for that pun but I truly fear a time when meals may come in pill form. Yum.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Seven Ways to Stretch Shopping Budgets

We've heard rumours of economic recovery. No matter how eagerly this tale is propagated by merchants and politicians, in our household, it remains an urban legend. It may well be our "recovery" is happening slower than most, but we're still carefully monitoring spending and keeping all variable expenses to a minimum. On the front line of our tactical plan are a few shopping strategies. It's ironic that savings are most often realized when spending. Here's our list of seven ways to stretch the budget:

  1. First on the list are lists: lists for groceries, lists for household items, and lists of stores and other tasks. It may sound obvious, but shopping without lists often leads to important items forgotten and/or unnecessary purchases, neither of which respects valuable time nor budgets. We buy some groceries from a chain-store grocer (one that offers "club shopper" savings and air miles,) and bulk groceries from a wholesaler. We also frequent our favourite Green Grocer and Butcher. Each vendor provides a specific quality or quantity of product we prefer. So, we keep separate lists for each store, and will often list the same food item on two or more lists if we intend to shop for best price or a particular quality. By listing the stores and tasks, shopping can be done in the most efficient manner with regard to routes taken and time spent in each store. For people like me, who rank shopping alongside root-canals, there's high merit in planning the day ahead. Or, if you live rurally, as we do, and must travel considerable distances to do your shopping, having comprehensive lists will help save money, time, and fuel.

  2. A day or two before you intend to shop, peruse your collection of coupons for relevant savings. Coupons are a great way to save on products you normally use. I stress that because using coupons for products you don't like often ends in wasted product, and there are no savings in waste. Coupons are, however, a good way to test a new product or one you're unfamiliar with: if you find you don't like the product, at least you haven't paid full price for it. I use an accordion file to sort all coupons, and a coupon wallet to carry with us on shopping excursions. When it's time to shop, I sort through the coupons in the accordion filer for products which correspond to the lists I've created, making sure to use coupons with the closest expiry date, first. Some shopping trips, we have no relevant coupons. Other trips we'll have a handful. Savings may seem small at the till, but they add up over the year -- I estimate we save, on average, about 1-2% solely through tendering coupons. That adds up to savings of between $35 and $150, depending on the year and coupons we receive. Those savings have helped us buy a few "extras." In the past, grocery stores used to have coupon bins – a place where customers could share coupons they won't use and pick up another person's surplus vouchers. This option, if it's available to you, is a terrific way to get the products you need, without discarding coupons which could be of value to others.

  3. Check store flyers. The weekly deluge we receive is sorted at the post office, where most are sent directly to recycling. The only flyers we bring home are for stores where we regularly shop – running from store to store for a few cents off on certain products costs more in fuel than any potential savings. A day or two before shopping, we compare the current week's flyer to our shopping list. If there are sales on items we commonly use and we have room to store (or freeze,) we buy it in bulk if the sale price is persuasive enough. This process may result in scratching off an item from one list and adding it to another, but the time you save while shopping will make the messy lists worthwhile.

  4. On shopping day, check stock in the refrigerator, cupboards, storage, and freezer. Add to (or deduct from) the lists as needed. I do a rough calculation of costs and, if that sum is greater than our budget, I'll put a single line through the items that can be "bumped" to the next shopping list.

  5. Eat just prior to shopping. A full stomach will make it much easier to resist impulse purchases of junk and convenience foods which are all too conveniently stacked on bunk ends and surrounding each check-out. If you're shopping for clothes, being full will ensure the fitting makes allowance for that larger state.

  6. Shop with a calculator. It's surprising how quickly prices add up. By keeping a running tally on a calculator, it's much easier to stay on budget. Often times, we spend less than my (purposefully high) rough estimate and can afford some items that were crossed from the list for budgetary reasons. Occasionally, in-store offers (for which my estimate did not account,) will allow a "scratched off" item to be purchased – this is the reason I cross off things with a single line; it keeps them legible.

  7. Watch for in-store specials, club savings, and member-only offers. These are often the most lucrative offers but, while they seem alluring, they might not always save you money. If you have an over-abundance of product or the inability to safely or properly store the item, then "savings" are reduced or nullified. Check the featured items against your lists – some may actually coincide with your current needs and/or budget. There are offers which will require a greater amount spent than your budget allows or excess product bought to achieve the savings. You'll need to decide whether the budget deficit or storing more product make the savings, reward, or rebate worth redeeming. Clubs are a great way to save, but some cost to join. These clubs often pay percentile rebates on your purchases and, depending on your shopping habits and store preferences, savings from this sort of club could well pay for the cost of membership. Some memberships, however, may cost more than the savings you'll achieve, particularly if you don't shop there frequently. Those choices will require your own calculations. The wholesaler we frequent sends us a yearly rebate on our purchases which nearly covers our cost of membership. We aren't losing, though, because during the year we realize significant savings by purchasing certain foods and household products in bulk. Those savings more than make up for the deficit between our rebate cheque and the cost of renewing membership.

While it's not always feasible, aligning shopping around your favourite stores' restocking schedules has benefits, too. We like to shop on Tuesdays, whenever possible, because that's when two of our grocers get their fresh produce. Fridays are their best day for fresh baked goods. Different stores have different schedules, so check with department managers in your favourite stores. Most will be happy to tell you when they have fresh product available.

I've heard people say they don't have time for all this. They can't be bothered with all the preparations and calculations. It's true this system takes a little more time and energy, but we consider it time well-spent. Like many others, we work hard to earn a living; it only seems fitting to put reciprocal effort into spending that money wisely.

Do you have a shopping strategy or tip you'd care to pass along? Please leave a comment, sharing your idea(s).