Sunday, July 26, 2009

Independence Challenge - July '09

Whew. Mom spent another week in the hospital after a string of "episodes" that culminated in what looked like a big TIA in the doorway of her doctor's office. After a lot of testing, they basically don't know what is wrong, but it's probably not more TIAs. It might just be the blood pressure meds they had her on after the first June TIA. She has a history of sensitivity to medication, and she hasn't had another episode since she stopped taking the Vasotec.

It did delay our move by two weeks - the landlord agreed to give us an extension. I was spending a lot of time at the hospital and we were not getting packed.

There is another factor influencing my preparedness - harder to wrap my head around. With DH gone at grad school, and my self-employment dissolved, I have no income while I care for Mom. I've had to apply for food stamps, Medical Assistance, and welfare. I don't like it, but it does help quite a bit. It's the first time I've had medical coverage since DD12 was born - I hardly know where to start.

We get $529/month in food stamps, far more than I expected - and far more than we spent on food with our own cash. But we don't eat like a lot of families do, and I have food storage. My mother technically does not live with us, but I also feed her from our food stamp budget. Several effects on our food patterns:
  • We eat in more variety. We can afford more than the cheapest protein. I can afford some fish, organic chicken, organic store-brand milk. We can afford more fresh fruit and vegetable variety. I can take advantage of seasonal sales on a more efficient scale. I can't be a spend-thrift, and we still eat a lot of rice, beans, oatmeal, eggs, and potatoes.

  • I can re-build our storage. I didn't have enough money to replenish what we were using, which was worrisome. Summer should be the time we stock up, not eat down.

  • We eat far less locally. Almost no vendors at the large farmer's markets take food stamp cards - none of the produce vendors. None of the orchards or producer markets take the cards at all. Not only are we unable to spend our food stamp largess locally, the local vendors are missing that whole market of clients. So, we cannot buy local milk, produce, meat, seeds, or baked goods (except the stuff that makes it into the grocery stores). We do shop at the most-locally-focused grocery stores, Weis and Redner's. I really miss the producer markets and the pick-your-own orchards.
It's been hard to get much done regarding the Independence Challenge. I've been trying to wait until we get fully moved and organized at Mom's house. But I did mange to get a few things done:

Planted: I bought a slicing tomato start on clearance and put it in a big pot on Mom's front walk. It's got a number of tomatoes. I am planting at least basil, cabbage, peas, and carrots for a fall garden.

Harvested: Mint for tea. My chocolate mint died over the winter, so the mint is my less-favorite spearmint. It dries poorly, I discovered last year - almost no flavor from dried leaves. We also used the dill from a small volunteer plant in the backyard. Mom has peppermint and apple teas in her yard, so I look forward to experimenting.

Preserved: Not so much. I hope to make pickles, pesto, and more jam in August.

Reduced Waste: Oh, not. The problem is my Mom's house. Her approach to reducing waste was to simply save it. And to bring in hundreds of cardboard boxes to organize it. And now years of paper, plastic, metal, cardboard, and glass must go, in one extended outpouring. We recycle as much as we can, with the municipal program and at various scrap buyers. We will also have yard sales, freecycling, and ebaying. But still, we have been putting out 16 large bags of trash each week, plus a bulk item.

We are have much stuff for the county's fall hazardous waste collection. Decades of expired medication, nail polish, mercury thermometers, old oil-based paint, batteries, pesticides, herbicides, anti-freeze and motor oil. I have a pick-up truckload of metal scrap, and am hiring someone hourly just to flatten cardboard for a truckload delivery.

On the positive side, Mom has an established composting area that we will expand. There are some elderly canned goods that we will eventually empty into the compost stream when I get more worms. Some, I will just flush or dump in the sink. For instance - she had a dozen cans of Hawaiian Punch from the 70s. Apparently, it can eat through metal, because the contents leaked from some of them. The rest must be full of dissolved metallic elements - I am dumping that into the sewer system.

We could compost some of her paper and cardboard, but not most of it - it would exceed the capacity of her 1/3-acre yard. We put out 20 bags of paper for the recycling pick-up this past Monday alone. I am looking for a place to take wood scrap - maybe a biomass generator. There are lots of wooden odds and ends that I won't burn in a home fireplace - painted, varnished, poly-coated, particle board, soft wood, etc. A biomass generator will have a scrubber stack.

We did a bunch of plumbing work - new hot water heater, new bathroom sink/faucet, toilet guts, and a pressure-reducing value. Mom's split-level was built in the 50's and the builder was cheap with plumbing and electrical work. My parents did almost nothing to improve on that. By simply adding a pressure-reducing value, we have already solved years of plumbing fixture abuse, wasted water, and wasted water-heating energy. We couldn't have a tankless heater without seriously upgrading her natural gas lines, so we just went with a more efficient heater.

Electrical work is next - new 200 amp service (she has a 60-amp fusebox), more lines for outlets in the basement, and GFI outlets for bath and kitchen. I need to be able to plug in my freezer safely. I realize now that Dad spent his whole garage workshop life using only an extension cord plugged into an outlet screwed into the ceiling fixture. WTF, Dad? He was not nearly as handy as I thought he was when I was a kid.

We are also planning a DIY kitchen upgrade that starts with stock base cabinets, surplus counter, and maybe a vintage cast iron sink. We need to stretch Mom's funds to cover as much renovation as we can, so we will do the kitchen in stages. I hope to post photos after we have done enough clean-up not to embarrass Mom. The girls are old enough to learn to use tools, and I have a lot of renovation experience. My hands are wrecked, but I can instruct and demo, and they can be the hands.

Preparation and Storage: I stocked a case of assorted canned beans, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, bulk popcorn and split peas we stored in juice bottles. These food stamp benefits will run out, maybe within 6 months, so I hope to do a lot more stocking by then.

I am still skimming Craigslist out of habit, and I saw a pressure canner go by. I just had to email, and I got it! Only used a few times, for $20. I am planning to start by canning some chicken stock as soon as we get settled.

We have also found more things at Mom's. Old comforters that can become window quilts, lots of fabric for quilting, Lots of kitchenware, even more canning jars. I will have to buy new rings and lids by the case. I also found a few older organic gardening books that I had intended to buy. Mom must have gotten them years ago, with good intentions, but never really grasped what "organic" meant, judging by the amount of commercial fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide in the garage. She saved a billion articles about using vinegar and baking soda, but still bought dozens of chemical cleaners. We will help her get back on the greener path.

Build Community Food Systems: No. But I am collecting ideas for future activism. My food stamp experience alone gives me ideas for things that need changing. If food stamps are our society's temporary family safety net, they need to be spendable in the local food economy, not shut people out of it.

Eat the Food: We were eating too much convenience food at first. We were working for 8-10 hours a day at Mom's house, and cooking just seemed impossible. But we have now fallen into better patterns. We make oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast, then spend the mornings doing email and phone work, or packing at our old house. We have lunch, often soup and sandwiches, and leave to work at the house for 4-5 hours. Then we come home and make dinner. Mom usually naps at home with one of the girls in the evening, and I take the other one back to work at the house for another 2-3 hours, usually leaving around 9:30pm. I try to go to bed by 10:30, and get up at about 7:30.

Having Mom around does keep us on more of a schedule than usual. She has had a loss of appetite, so she doesn't ask for food, although she will eat and enjoy it if I bring it. I have to remember to feed her so she can take her medications on time (and not get loopy from lack of food). I'm not used to that - if the kids are hungry they either demand a meal or go rustle up their own food. We usually only ate dinner together. Now, I am preparing three meals a day.

I gave up making yogurt, for now, but we do make crockpots of soup, and often something else for sandwiches, like roast turkey or meatloaf. Dinner is usually some form of boneless chicken with vegetable, salad, or side dish. DD16 might make chicken curry with green beans over rice. Or I might make chicken Caesar salad. There is often fresh fruit at every meal. The four of us can go through most of a watermelon in a day, a whole cantaloupe or pineapple in one meal. Cereal, bananas, and leftovers fill in the gaps.

By my next Independence Challenge report, I hope to be able to say I have my new pantry set up, my kitchen renovation underway, and our composting expanded.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Update from the Trenches

I've been quiet, blog-wise, for a long time, but busy "off screen."

This week, we are in the final push to move into Mom's house by July 21st (which is when we've told our landlord we will be out). The house is not quite ready, so I am a bit nervous about whether the plumber will have the essential work done in time. And by "ready" I mean just able to physically accommodate me, the girls, and our bare necessities. We need to be able to sleep, cook, use a bathroom, hook up a computer, have room to sit down. It will take many months for the house to be fully re-organized and repaired.

On top of her cognitive issues, Mom had a mini-stroke in June. She has recovered well, but now takes a lot more medications than she once did. Her license to drive has been taken, and her independence much reduced. It is a sad time for her. We now think she does not have Alzheimer's, but that she may have had a number of small strokes that were not recognized. That is both good and bad news. I feel even more sharply the urgency of writing down more of her stories.

Once we are moved in, I hope to start blogging again, as we begin to completely reorganize a house filled to the brim with stuff, some useful, some not. It raises interesting questions of what needs stocking up for an uncertain future, and how much is enough. My mother's OCD/hoarding tendencies made her stockpiling ritualistic and excessive, but her urges are very similar to the things we talk about wanting to accomplish with our Independence challenges and our various prepping activities.

Jars, for instance. We've recycled vast amounts of saved glass and plastic jars. Possibly thousands, in carloads to the township recycling center. We've kept the canning jars (maybe 150), freezer containers, the larger glass jars with intact lids. We've recycled the rest - too many different sizes, all with different lids. I want to have only 2-3 lid sizes to manage.

There are still dozens of jars of hardware to look through - many dating back to my father's workshop days - but he's been gone for 27 years. Some will end up with the metal scrap. There is a huge metal scrap pile in the backyard, along with a large wood scrap pile, and a mountain of cardboard to be flattened - all bound for various recycling destinations. Hundreds of cans of old oil-based paint and house/garden chemicals will go to a hazardous waste collection event in the fall. There are also many 4-5 gallon plastic food buckets with lids, round and square. My mom used them ineffectively, but I am keeping them for now - future food storage.

Some things were more of an artifact of her hoarding disorder. Onions skins, for instance. Bags, bottles, and boxes tucked in everywhere. Long ago (40 years?), she did a craft project that involved dying eggs with onions skins. She's been saving them since, wanting to do more of that, but not able to do anything at all in her disordered house. The phrase "disordered house" is so apt in this situation. Onion skins can be useful, but there is no danger we will run out, since we grow onions.

Lest it all seem grim, we have also found many interesting things, some of which will be blogged later. My teen daughters were fascinated by a pile of Seventeen magazines from the 70's. I kept some Boys Life to give to my brother. Funny lists I made when I was in 7th grade. My mother's wedding shoes. Negatives from my father's darkroom. Jars full of seashells from our beach trips. Things my father and grandfather brought back from WWII.

There are also useful things. Lots of tools, books, lumber, plastic sheeting, fire wood. The many buckets and canning jars. (Oddly, I never recall my mother canning - I think she stopped when I was very young). A vintage croquet set and other games. Clothing, sheets, towels. Envelopes, stationary, wrapping paper. Hundreds of gloves (another item of obsessive focus for Mom). No need to go to yard sales this year!

And... we have only done the very-densely-packed cellar, garage, hallway, part of the living room. We still have the rest of the LR, a dining room, most of the kitchen, 4 bedrooms, 2 attic spaces, an enclosed back porch, and a crawl space. There is a collapsing garden shed to be emptied and torn down. We've been putting out 8 bags of trash twice a week, plus bulk items, and trips to the recycling center. We already have a very large "yard sale" department growing in the garage.

We have been using a rented storage unit to pack up our old household until there is room at Mom's. We got rid of a lot of our own stuff. Mom's situation has lead us all to examine our own habits of acquisition and disposal. I wonder if DD16 will now ever keep anything she cannot make digital.

A few weeks ago, I did manage to make small batch of strawberry jelly at our house. Two pints plus a half-pint. Nothing like the 18-24 pints I had intended to make, as DD12 will only eat strawberry. But, better than nothing. I suspect I will be doing few of the things I really want to be doing, until the major sorting effort is done.

Much more to tell another day. We canceled most of our TV cable and are making media adaptations. DH is off at grad school, working hard in a completely different way. DD12 is adapting badly to the changes in our life and we are seeking family counseling with her. DD16 is making choices about how to do high school. We are all facing a possible move to a new city when DH comes out of grad school next fall.

What a whirlwind we live in, right now.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Independence Challenge - Year 2 - Week 2

I had a great Mother's Day. I picked up my Mom on Sunday morning and took her to my church for Flower Communion, which she enjoyed. Then we went home, where DD12 had made us brunch waffles from baking mix I made in advance, breakfast sausages from the market, orange juice, tea, a cut-up pineapple, giant strawberries for garnish, and a pan of brownies. Then we watched a movie together, the funny-but-forgettable Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler.

Saturday, DH and I went out and saw Star Trek, followed by late lunch in a new Mexican place that we liked a lot, the Plaza Azteca near the Berkshire Mall. I had carnitas, and the roast pork was to-die-for.

DD12 gifted me a recipe book. She took down all the frequently-used recipes I had printed out and taped up on the cupboard doors, punched holes in them, and put them in a binder for me. She gave my mother some marigold starts they planted at school. DH gave me a bag of very good Australian licorice he got in Philadelphia at a stand in the Reading Terminal Market. We all gave my mom dark chocolate in various forms, her favorite.

DD16 sent me a Mother's Day greeting via Facebook, which included a coupon for 4 hours of yard work, or 3 hours of Attic Cleaning. Poor girl, I will be taking her up on that pretty quickly.

I feel deprived of gardening. My backyard is a mess. I've basically ignored it completely since last fall, not even doing a complete fall clean-up. But Mother Nature doesn't depend on human intervention, happily, and the perennials are coming up nicely. If I would just cut the grass, you should even see them. And I will do that, as soon as I remember to pick up the grass shears from the sharpening place - where I left them last fall. ~sigh~

Harvested: Nothing yet. The alley is full of shiny new plantain I could harvest for medical use, but I am restraining myself. Focus, focus, focus.

Preserved: Nothing. I made a big batch of whole wheat baking mix, but it got used pretty quickly.

Reduced Waste: I bought a watermelon - what was I thinking?! It's too early. They came from Texas. Not sweet at all. Composted most of it. That will teach me to ignore my "in season" rule.

I am trying to save my favorite 4-quart saucepan. I fell asleep a couple weeks ago, while applesauce was cooking on low. I woke up in my chair a few hours later, to the smell of burnt sugar. No smoke, but the blackened apples were carbonized to the pan bottom. I managed to chisel it out with a putty knife and a screwdriver, but there is still black stuff burned on after scouring with a Brillo pad and trying oven cleaner. I still want to save it, but I don't know what else to try. Anyone have suggestions?

There is massive paper and cardboard recycling. Sorting is going a little faster at Mom's, where generates lots of paper trash and empty boxes. We are also sorting here at home as we pack to move this summer. I put out 10 bags of paper recycling last week. I know I can shred and compost it, but I am not starting that until we get moved and I can set up a workable shredding station.

Prepped and Stored: The packing is getting us more organized and de-cluttered, which I think of as preparation. It's easier to evaluate what you really need to keep when you know you will have to move it to a storage unit, and then later move it again.

Community Food Systems: A family from church had a house fire, and the mom of the family recently had hand surgery. We are trying to pitch in with gluten-free meals for a family of three. I am making 2 quarts of curried split pea soup with ham. Interesting how many of my recipes involve gluten, when I start looking at them. I think I will ask if they like yogurt, too - I could make them some of that.

Eaten: We continue to eat from the freezer and pantry. I do buy dairy, cheese, bread, and produce each week, plus odds and ends like pretzels and crackers. That turkey last week made a lot of meals, but we are now sick of turkey. Turkey sandwiches, turkey curry, turkey and gravy with mashed, etc.

Last week, I took Mom to the doctor, to talk about her various issues. It was revealing. She had forgotten the things the doctor said last time, and lost two prescriptions. He also had the report from the pyschiatrist visit. She is going to have some testing to see if we can narrow down the source of her memory loss and confusion. I take her to get a lot of bloodwork today, and an MRI on Wednesday.

I feel a little bit of hope. If it is not Alzheimer's, there is a chance that she will continue on in her current pleasantly-vague condition, with the capacity to enjoy things, instead of descending more quickly into the less pleasant stages of dementia. Maybe there is time left for some happiness, after we clean up her house. We are going to start a new medication this coming week, Luvox, to see if it helps her anxiety and compulsive behaviors. Wish us luck.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Starting Year 2 of Independence Days Challange

I've been absent as a blogger for months. I am very occupied with the tasks of packing my house, helping my mother sort through her house, and coordinating our busy family shedule around our one-car lifestyle. For a few weeks, I was barely even cooking.

But I really want to keep feeling like I am still working toward Independence, even if I am mostly overwhelmed by current events in the family. I need to hang on to some little piece of sanity. The 10-11 months of solid IDC posting I did last year made me feel like I was really making progress.

So, inspired by Sharon's announcement of IDC Year 2, I am going to try to post an IDC update every Monday, even if it is piteously meager. Even if I don't have any photos. Here we go:

Planted: Nothing. Since we will probably leave this house with a month or 2, I didn't plant anything. I will clean up this yard, and move all my stuff to my mom's house, where we have yet to establish a veggie bed with real soil. I may be able to plant a fall/winter garden there. But the work on her house gets priority over everything else, so maybe no garden at all this year. At least perennial flowers are coming up on their own.

Harvested: Nothing. I do have a planter full of perennial garlic chives. For this growing season, I think I will use this "harvest" category to talk about locally-produced food.

Preserved: Nothing.

Reduced Waste: I get a negative score this week. I fridge disaster forced me throw away a lot of food. A thawing package of beef shin accidentally got hidden behind things on the top shelf, and leaked blood all over the produce. I had to throw it away and clean the fridge.

Prepped and Stored: We are getting more prepped in the sense that we are packing up labeled boxes of our possessions. I am getting less prepped because I am not buying new bulk, so that we don't have to move it this summer. I will re-stock after the move. We should have more pantry space at Mom's.

Community Food Systems: I still shop at the Farmer's Market and the local grocery that I have found to be most-local (Weis). I got eggs from a friend from chruch - they have more eggs than they can eat.

Eaten: We are definately eating out of storage. I am trying to thaw and eat everything from the freezer before we move. It saves me from having to do much grocery shopping right now. We had started eating too much convenience food when I started being at Mom's house a lot, but I spent this weekend stocking the fridge. I cooked up burrito filling, made curried split pea soup, thawed a chuck of ham we used in pasta, and roasted a turkey to make lots of leftovers. I just need to make yogurt tonight, and re-stock our veggies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bloom Day - March 2009

Does anyone know what this little weed is?
Edit: Cardamine hirsuta (Early or Hairy Bittercress)

I did take these photos on the 15th. Just didn't get time to post them for the official Bloom Day.

There is not a whole lot happening here, yet. In my yard, some bulbs are pushing up, but only a weed is blooming!

I am happy to see that all the sedums I rooted last year are coming back. The Vera Jameson (at 10 o'clock in the photo) has loads of buds - I need to get that in a bigger pot.

Tulips are coming up in the grass.

And where I left them last year. Might be a Crown Imperial at the bottom.

Random daffodils near the rick path we built last year. If I had been sure I was staying at this house, I would have put in a lot more bulbs along the path. They would work out well with the herbs I will plant later in the season. Lots of basil grew here last year.

My Mom's yard has more going on.

Does anyone know what this purple flower is?
Edit: Unknown cultivar of Iris Cristata (Wood Iris)

Mom has always been more patient with bulbs than I am. One of many clumps of daffodils:

Crocuses and hyacinth:

Winter Aconite:

Happily, the goundhog looks like it has not yet stirred from the burrow. Leaves are still stuffed under her "decorative" boulder, as they have been all winter. Unless, there is a second burrow entrance they are using.

Monday Cooking Day

This quiche turned out particularly well.

I seem to be developing a pattern of going to market on Saturdays and doing weekly cooking on Mondays. Our weekends are often busy, moreso now that spring soccer started for DD12, so Monday seems to work as a day that I can hop back and forth from working at the computer to tending things in the kitchen.

This afternoon I baked off sweet potatoes to puree, white taters for home fries, and one of the last butternut squashes from the basement. I made pumpkin streusel muffins with the squash. I made bread pudding with stale rolls I got for $1 at the market. I also cooked off some bulk sausage and bacon ends, to use in quiche. I zested lemons, made fresh lemon juice, made hummus. I am thinking about try to make my own pita bread or some other flatbread. The recipes don't look too hard.

The muffins were from a super-healthy recipe with whole grain flour, egg whites, no fat, and skim milk. Kinda scary, so I used whole milk and whole eggs. They next batch needs more streusel, too. But DH and I thought they were pretty good! Especially with a dab of cream cheese. (I suck at fat-free.) I am eager to see how well they keep, and freeze.

I put the muffins in a Tupperware thing I got at a yard sale last summer, for the freezer, so we can just take out a few each day. I have a lot of ripe pears to use up, so ginger-pear bran muffins are next. I took a family survey about muffins, to see what everyone would eat. Everyone can agree on blueberry, and fortunately I have some summer-picked blueberries in the freezer. DH likes plain bran muffins, like his father made, so I need to do some experimenting with recipes. I hate scrubbing muffin pans. I want to use paper liners, but it seems wasteful to create that trash. Must be why I normally like making quiche bread loaves - loaf pans are easy to wash.

I didn't get apples peeled for sauce today, so that means we will all be peeling in front of the TV some other night this week. I think I have enough apples for 4 quarts this time.

I inventoried the leftovers in the fridge - DD15 is leaving a lot of half-eaten veggies in there. She is doing pretty well with her "no meat for Lent" commitment. I am not doing as well. I keep forgetting - I made rice with stock instead of water, so she couldn't use the same rice. I mixed the refried beans with the turkey taco meat, instead of keeping the the beans separate to share with her. Is it some sort of passive-aggressive resistance to vegetarianism? Hmm.

In other food news, DD12 is Eating Better, making progress like I haven't seen in years. I don't know if she had some sort of personal epiphany, or if a couple years if watching us eat has produced a change, but things are happening. Bread, for instance. For years, she would only eat commercial Italian style bread and the cheapest hot dog buns. Then we introduced her to a local Italian bakery, and she expanded into fresh Italian bread and Kaiser rolls. Never would she touch a whole grain bread product. But suddenly she asked to try a loaf of whole wheat Italian. Still commercial bread, but she crossed the whole grain Rubicon. She does also eat whole grain waffles we make ourselves, so I am feeling much better about her fiber intake.

She is also eating a lot of my homemade applesauce with, drinking Concord grape juice, and accepting chicken in more variety. She used to live on chicken nuggets, and likes the fried chicken legs at the farmer's market - but she will now also eat plain baked chicken.

Whew. She was so inflexible about what she would eat, down to specific brands. I was really worried she would have trouble as an adult. People have been saying, "She'll outgrow it" since she was 5, but she is heading for 13 now! Long ago, I said "I am not running a diner" and made her start to cook her own food, so I was neither forcing her to eat our food, nor "caving in" and making two different meals. I'm trying not to do the forced-eating stuff that my parents did, and which resulted in my own weird food dislikes. (The thought of green beans makes me queasy.)

But finally she seems to allowing herself to try some new stuff again, for whatever reason. Yay!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fabulous News

Out on the porch are two boxes of apple seconds that I bought for only $2 at the market on Saturday. I see a lot of applesauce in my future. I am the Queen of Market Scavenging: apple seconds, cheese ends, ham and bacon ends, day-old bread and rolls, bones, wilted greens.
March is more than halfway gone, and I am so far behind in my blogging. I have half a dozen unfinished posts in the pipeline. I'm gonna catch up with a series of quickie posts about things I don't want to forget.

First, Fabulous News today: DH was selected to be a National Urban Fellow in the 40th Anniversary year of that program. It's an intensive graduate program with two semesters of coursework and a 9-month mentorship that will result in a Master of Public Administration and admission to an incredible network of Fellows. The program runs a total of 14 months, pays a stipend and other expenses, and even includes health insurance. It's a wonderful , exciting opportunity and I am so proud of him for being selected.

But (isn't there always a "but"?), it means he will leave us for most of that time. We've had other times in our long relationship when we did not live together, so we will be okay, but I am not looking forward to his absence, even with all the digital means of staying close.

A huge clock just started ticking. He leaves the last weekend of May, and will be in NYC until August, then I get him back for 3 weeks before he goes to an as-yet-uknown major city for the mentorship. I hope he gets assigned to the Eastern seaboard, so I can visit him. We have a lot of work to do to be ready, and he will barely finish his EMT certification in May. Tick tock!

The Great Clean-up is Under Way. DH and I rented a garage for storage, and today my mother and I had our first clean-up session at her house. I took away two bags of trash and a 'donut' tire to Freecycle. I took photos of an old school desk and a child's bench to sell on Craigslist. That made just a small dent in the front porch junk, but it was a good warm-up. I hope to establish a schedule of working from 8AM-Noon four days per week, with some afternoons reserved for taking her to appointments and such. Now that we know DH is going to grad school, the pressure is really on.

Planning to Move. The current plan is to move to Mom's house in June. I have discovered that makes me really disinterested in doing things in our current house. "Is is worth doing when we will only be here another 3 months?" So far, "no" to new bathroom curtain, rearranging the living room furniture, and planting potatoes.

I've stopped buying for the freezer and pantry, and we will try to eat down our stores to avoid moving heavy canned goods. But I am keeping a list, so we can restock after the move. I'm also working on packing up things I can stash in the rented garage to reduce the size of the move - extra books, the fabric collection, and assorted boxed memorabilia.

I'm not going to plant anything at our house this year. Not even the early peas and lettuce. The clock is ticking too loudly, and I need to stay closely focused. I might try to get stuff in at Mom's if I can get rid of that groundhog, and score some compost to put in large containers.

We are planning an Easter weekend trip to DC. Tentatively, we'll visit DH's family there, visit the Smithsonian on Saturday, and attend at All Souls Unitarian Church on Sunday. We haven't been anywhere as a family since August, so a little road trip will be nice, and we seldom see DH's aunts.

Look for more posts shortly. I have things to tell you about the worm farm, a birthday trip to the Historical Society, and an Independence Challenge Update.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Independence Challenge - February 2009

Pear Butter, with cardamom, has been lovely on toast and waffles.

As you may recall, I took a blogging break for most of February. During that time, I did lot of research about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, in preparation for taking my mother to her doctor for an evaluation. But, one way or another, we will start cleaning out her house in March, so we can move in with her for the year that DH would be away at grad school. Right now, I am hard at work finding a large storage space to rent.

In other news, DH goes to NYC ths week, for interviews about his fellowship program. He is officially a semi-finalist for the program. By the end of this month, we will know if he makes the final cut. I am trying not to jinx it, not to feel too excited for him, knock wood. Fingers crossed.

Planted/Harvested: DD15 grew mung bean sprouts. She likes sprouts, but she didn't like these. We are going to try other sprouting seeds. I also harvested seeds from an organic squash that stored well from September to February.

Speaking of seeds, I won a blog giveaway from Kathy Purdy at Cold Climate Gardening, and got to pick out 6 packs of seeds from Botanical Interests. That was a nice pick-me-up in a dark month! I ordered mostly early spring planting:
Beets - Detroit Dark Red
Peas, shelling - Progress #9 Organic
Carrot - Baby Little Finger Organic
Lettuce - Romaine Little Gem Organic
Onion - Ringmaster (long day)
Pumpkin - French Cinderella
I am applying for a community garden plot; more than one if we can sign up the kids - gonna need space for pumpkins and squash. I hope to plant at my Mom's house, too, but getting it cleared out gets priority. I am not going to plant at our rented house except in moveable containers.

Preserved: I canned 3 more pints of Meadowlark's Sunshine Jam, a quart of Pear Butter, and many quarts of apple sauce. For the freezer, I made 3 pints of pizza sauce and 6 quarts of roast pork stock. Dried citrus zest and froze 2-tablespoon juice cubes from some lemons and limes.

Cooked: Wow, a month of cooking flies by. A few things stand out, among the usual curries, bread puddings, bean soups, roast chicken, and sausage.

I've been the only one eating real oatmeal. DH will eat the instant packettes of flavored oatmeal, and I found out it's because he doesn't like all the extra fruit and yogurt I put in mine. I got some other kinds of hot cereal to try, and I am working on developing a homemade quick oats mix with sugar and spices. Once I get it to pass the taste test, I will post the recipe. I want him to be able to scoop out a half-cup, add hot water, cover, and be able to eat it in 5 minutes.

I made a really good, versatile Tandoori-style Chicken I found on my fav recipe site. I made 5 chicken breast halves with it, intending to have leftovers, but it all got gobbled up. It was great with my favorite green tomato chutney. I was between yogurt batches, so I used sour cream which worked out fine. This will be a good grilling recipe, too.

DH doesn't like being commercially pressured to be romantic on Valentine's Day, especially since he is a thoughtful man every day. He actually got me a card this year, and it said, "You know I hate Valentine's Day, but I sure do love you." We went to a matinee of Slumdog Millionaire, and got Chinese for lunch. Not any different from the "date" we have once a month or so, but since it was VD, the restaurant give me a free rose. When we got home, DD12 had vacuumed the living room, baked us a chocolate cake, lit candles in the living room, and served grape juice in wine glasses. Then she made dinner of baked chicken, and dyed the mashed potatoes pink and shaped them into hearts! Nice day, no excessive consumption.

On Fat Tuesday, we made Buttermilk Pancakes for dinner, and the recipe made extra batter, which stored nicely in a jar in the fridge for easy pancakes later in the week. I like them with applesauce spread on them, and I like when they are so easy to make from leftover batter.

DD15 decided to give up Facebook and meat for Lent. We aren't Catholic, but I think she wants to test her willpower. I'm not sure which will be harder to avoid! We warned her that her stepdad and I would not be avoiding meat on her behalf, but we should be fine, since she often cooks her own food anyway. We will have to adjust the family shopping a bit - more eggs, more veggies, more curry powder. Good thing we already have a lot of rice, pasta, and beans. Frankly, it should save us some money; teenagers eat a lot! I need to make her some vegetable stock to use in rice and grits. She makes "Kick-You-in-the-Face-Good Tacos," at least according to her. Add more avocadoes and cheese to the shopping list.

Stocked: At the beginning of the month, 10# of hot chocolate mix, of which more than half is gone. That makes more than 30# this winter. We don't drink coffee, but with the house cold, we have been looking for warmth by the cup. Lately, that seems to be hot chocolate more often than a pot of tea. I looked into making our own mix, but the ingredients cost more than the prepared mix.

From the grocery store loss leaders: butter, freezer bags, saltines, frozen peas, dish soap, decaf Earl Grey tea bags, pinto beans, egg noodles, laundry detergent, adobo, bean soup mix, cooking spray, cheerios, strawberry preserves (DD12), BBQ sauce, paper towels, sea salt, concord grape juice.

We spent $300 stocking up on toiletries! We need to look closely at some of our habits. At a combination of BJs, Target, Aldi, and Weis supermarket, we stocked: cotton balls, cotton swabs, toothbrushes, toothpaste, 2 kinds of bar soap, acne face soap, dandruff shampoo, regular shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, disposable razors, 3 kinds of deodorant, flushable wipes, Dr. Bronner's soap, tampons and pads. Some of that will last much more than 3 months, but I sure hope it does not turn out that we spend $100/mo on non-food supplies. We bought DH 10 bottles of ProHealth mouthwash for $30, which was a great deal. We don't have dental coverage, and he goes the extra step with a dental rinse.

DD12 took a big liking to Concord grape juice. I was restricting her to one 64oz bottle a week, but DH though we should let her drink what she wants, since she will eat few vegetables and doesn't drink enough water. We bought 8 bottles at the warehouse club, and she has gone through them in a month. She can down a whole bottle in one day, and she doesn't seem to suffer any intestinal upset from it. But it's so much sugar, even if it is 100% grape juice. I am going to have to find some why to throttle that level of consumption, and look into whether frozen concentrate is cheaper.

Prepped: We are having a "Bug Out Bag Packing Day" this coming weekend. We've been collecting stuff for months, but have not assembled it properly into bags for each person. Time to get cracking!

Managed: Inventoried the bath closet, and saw that we had gone through most of what we bought back in October. I failed to keep track of what we bought, what we used and restocked, so I still don't really know what we actually use in a 3-month period. DH and I went on an expensive stock-up run. My toilet paper supply did hold up well, at least. This time, I will track everything and set quarterly pars. We hope to move into Mom's house at the end of another 3 months, so that will be a good time to inventory.

I finally managed to get an appointment for DD15 to get teeth filled. There is a high school vocational program near us, that trains dental assistants. The dentists themselves are experienced professionals that volunteer at the school. DD15 had three molars filled for only $30. DD12 and I don't need fillings, but we get our teeth cleaned in March, and DD15 goes back for more work. DH is too wary of trainees to go there. (Ok, really he's just a dental chicken, but I let him cling to his excuses.)

After much debate, we replaced our battered nonstick skillets, the 8 and 10 inch pans. We don't like the potential for off-gassing at high heat, but the cast iron is too heavy for DD12 and she routinely burns things the get stuck. The small pan is exclusively for eggs, and no one is allowed to cook on high heat in either one of them.

I inventoried the small and large freezers. The small bags of things float to the bottom and don't get rotated - frozen veg, boxes of butter, bags of soup bones. I need to get some baskets or something to contain them better. We have eaten a lot of it - saving the whole turkey for sometime around Easter.

Worked on the worm farm, battling a mite invasion. I will post more about the worms shortly, but the bin looks healthy now, and I see a lot of nice composted stuff. I finally found someone local with a worm farm and worms to share. I am going on a road trip to Phoenixville, about 45 minutes away. Can't wait to see their worm set-up. I want to make another new bin (or two).

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: I was over-feeding the worm bin, so I started keeping kitchen waste in a bucket on the back porch, where it has been mostly frozen. As the ground thaws, I will bury it in the garden. We stopped getting free newspapers from the neighbor, so my paper supply is way down. I need to find new sources.

I did save all the clear grape juice bottles. Washed out, they are good for storing rice and beans. A 2-pound bag of beans fits in a half-gallon bottle. The bottle are sturdier and more bug-proof than the plastic bags that beans come in. I keep the in-use supply bottles under the sink now.

I picked up a dozen quart canning jars on FreeCycle, but I notice that they are more often found on Craigslist for $5-10/dozen now. The GoodWill store has lost it's fool mind - they are .97 per jar! Since I can buy new jars that come with lids and rings for $7/dz at Walmart, I am not paying for old jars unless they are under $5/dz. It's not worth the time and gas money to drive all over to collect small lots of jars. I do still pick them up for 25 cents at rummage. I do like the look and feel of the older heavier jars.

Community Food: I had to delay some things when my Mom's situation blew up. I pushed back the food group to March, and delayed starting the bulk buying club. My low energy from the thyroid problem is really hindering me. I have another doctor's appointment soon.

I did do a February teen conference where I gave a 90-minute "Intro to Ethical Eating Issues" workshop (twice). We did an energetic exercise that asked people to take a step forward or back if they were familiar with various issues. The kids were really very aware of food issues. Unitarian-Universalists are often involved in gardening, healthy cooking, food activism, and health professions - and that is very visible in the kids. Lots of lifelong vegetarians. The workshop I did would work better for a less educated group. I need to do something more advanced for the UU teens. I am thinking about Food Waste as a topic - worms ahoy!

I recycled a big stack of egg cartons to a church friend that has chickens, and she brought me eggs the next week. I hope to make a regular arrangement with her, instead of the man at the market that brings them from another county in foam egg cartons.

I trained at the United Way as an interviewer for the national Hunger Survey going on in shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens all over the country right now. I've visited four sites as an interviewer, so far, and it has been sobering. The stories of the elderly were especially striking, to me. Most are blue collar folks who worked hard and still find themselves with few resources and failing health. There is a need for some kind of "caseworker" or ombudsman to help people who need to be hooked up with other services they don't know about.

It is also time to sing up for a CSA. I'm trying to decide which one, and whether to get a whole or half-share. I am concerned we will get more greens than we can eat, so I leaning toaward a half. Then I can add more fruit, eggs, and preferred veg by shopping at the producer market all summer. Maybe I will feel inspired to find some dish we will all eat regularly, that uses loads of greens. Perhaps some version of Cream of Green soup.

Learning: I've been researching dementia and eldercare. DH has been continuing with his EMT training course, which is seems to be enjoying. DD15 started volunteering at the local art center on Fridays, so she can earn a free art class. DH is looking into Taekwondo for DD12, in his search for a martial arts class she will stick with. She also starts spring soccer soon, so Taekwondo may get pushed back.

Library: Found Needlecraft, from the Reader's Digest Home Handbook series. Looks like a good general reference, for 50 cents from the church bookshelf.

We have also started to support a particular library branch. I know the librarian from church. The city cut the library budget, but the county picked up some of those positions, including my friend's job. She was moved to a branch, the smallest branch in the "worst" part of town. She worries that the next cut will be closing a branch, and that hers could be the one - but this branch is essential to the very poor children and adults in that neighborhood. A number of us from church are supporting her by moving all our library activites to her branch. I order most of my library books online during the week, so I can just stop in and pick up all my holds on the weekend. Now, I have them sent to her branch, where I also pay any fines I incur, increasing her circulation and revenue.

More photos next time. I wanted to spew out all this saved up IDC stuff and then settle back into a regular blogging pattern again. I missed it!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Giant Vegetable Man

Howard Trivelpiece (97), grower of giant vegetables

My family is descended from an old Pennsylvania Dutch family on my mother's side, the Drebelbis (dry-bell-BIS) family. There is big fat book that traces our roots to the 1732 arrival of John Jacob Drebelbis as a colonial settler from the German Palatine region. There is a reunion on an ancient family farm every summer. There is an old photo of my mother as a little girl at the 200th anniversary in 1932, and she appears again, with my kids an I, in the 275th anniversary photo.

Anyway, my mom has always been on the lookout for the Drebelibis name in the news. The name has been spelled many ways as people moved to other parts of the country. Many years ago, my mom spotted a man named Howard Trivelpiece in a magazine article about gardening. My mom wrote to him in California, to tell him about the Drebelibis Cousins of America reunions, should he wish to attend.

Howard has never come East for a reunion, but my mom has been exchanging letters and holiday cards with him ever since. At 97, he is still raising giant vegetables in his northern California backyard. He has a radish, a beet, and a 3.25-pound head of garlic in the Guinness Book of World Records. This past year, the Siskiyou Golden Fair gave him an award for 80 (!) years of competing at the fair, and they named a building for him: the Howard Trivelpiece Ag-Hort Building. He first entered rabbits, in 1928, as a 4-H member. In his best year at the fair, he won 67 ribbons!

His wife Velva is 94. Isn't her name cool? Velva. You don't often hear of a couple where both live into their 90s. They must eat their vegetables.

Howard raises a lot of vegetables and gives them away - except for the best of the crop, which he saves to enter in the fair. Every year, he says he has to save his best veg for what might be his last fair. He credits his success to careful soil building, using lots of rabbit manure, although he is also a Miracle-Gro fan.

I think it's fun that my mom has been writing to him all these years. I'm going to send him a card and a photo of Mom in the garden this summer. I want to know if Velva was a canner. Maybe he'll want to swap seeds!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Winter Comforts

Fresh applesauce, Sunshine Jam, and a Faschnacht with molasses to dip it. What's a Faschnacht? It's a Pennsylvania Dutch potato donut, made for Shrove Tuesday. They call it Donut Day in some places, and local fire company Ladies Auxiliaries make huge batches that the volunteer firemen hawk at stop lights as fundraisers. My mother brought us a dozen today, apparently so we can pratice for Tuesday.
Y'know, even 'tho things are a little crappy lately, I am finding comfort in our new food routines. I wondered if we would want to stray back to packaged convenience when stressed, but it looks like the new patterns are really becoming set.

I indulged in a carrot muffin at a Wawa convenience store the other day when I filled the gas tank. I didn't like it. It was too sweet, too oily, and didn't have raisins or nuts or good spices. The fake cream cheese icing was heart-burn sweet. Bland. I've done nothing but think about good carrot cake muffins ever since. Today I peeled and grated the last of the fall carrots, and I'll make muffins tomorrow. I also made pear butter, applesauce, and Sunshine Jam today.

I can't wait for spring, but I really have been enjoying the winter food.

We are now good at making yogurt, stock, pizza and pasta sauce. We make a weekly pot of bean soup, and we are eating more cabbage and potatoes. I've added a weekly batch of applesauce, and a batch of sweet potato puree to have on hand for biscuits. I keep meaning to try other biscuit recipes, but the sweet potato biscuits are so good, and we get extra beta-carotene, too.

I find I am finally getting into the swing of putting together routine meals that come mostly from staples in our pantry. We make a weekly trip to the farmer's market for milk, pasture-fed eggs, cheese, apples, and greens. We hit a grocery store to stock up on a few loss-leaders every other week or so. I have a good idea of what I need to can/plant/store more of for next winter.

The supply of squash and sweet potatoes (all local) have held up well in the cellar this winter, and we still have a few left. The carrots, parsnips, and cabbage did well in the fridge (also local, but now gone). The white potatoes did not do well. There are a few sprouting ones I will plant. I ended up buying 10# bags of taters every few weeks. I didn't grow even a fraction of our onions, and none of the garlic, nor did I find local sources for those.

I have been making 2 quarts of applesauce almost every week. We've used massive amounts of eating and cooking apples this year. I guess that means I would have to make 100 quarts for a year for my pantry, if I went strictly with local apples in the fall, in addition to eating apples. The local ones I bought got eaten before we could test their cellar storage longevity.

But, there is this thing at the market. I've been going on Saturdays and asking one of the produce vendors if there are apple seconds. He usually gives me a box of bruised apples and pears for a few dollars. This week, I got about 10# of apples and 5# of Bosc pears for only ONE dollar! I have discovered that I need to go right home and make applesauce and pear butter, or the fruit flies go nuts. I brought fruit flies home on a pineapple, and they found the worm composting bin, and we have had trouble keeping them down ever since. I've been freezing the peels in a bucket out back instead of composting them, until we get the flies under control. When the ground thaws, I will trench-compost the thawed peelings.
(I found a recipe for apple jelly that boils the peels to
make a pretty rose-colored jelly. I also want to try
making my own vinegar. Then I would *really* be
getting all I can out of an apple.
These apples and pears are mostly not local, a mix of whatever gets culled each week, many from Washington State, a mere 2500 miles away. But they would be discarded if I didn't use them, I think. So, on one hand, I am not buying local, but on the other, I am reducing waste while saving loads of money.

I think the middle ground might be to make some local applesauce in the fall, and supplement it with the weekly throw-away apples. At least until that time in the future when shipping becomes so expensive that Washington apples don't come here anymore.

Anyone have arguments for a different solution? I do buy local produce regularly, and devote part of my grocery budget to doing so every week, directly from producers whenever I can. Should I be turning down produce from afar, as a point of principle? The dollar-stretcher in me would have trouble walking away from this apple deal.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hiatus Update

Ring bologna, with heart-shaped
mustard, from Super Bowl Sunday.

It's been a few weeks since I posted. It has been hard not to give in to the blogging urge. But I have so many things to do, that I am sticking (mostly) to my plan not to blog in February. I have been reading other people's blogs - I couldn't stand not knowing how everyone is doing. I really miss blogging! It keeps me feeling like I am making forward progress.

My mom is back in her home for the moment, and we've gone round-and-round about what the next step should be. My first urge was to move us all into a bigger house, and just make her come live with us. But after looking at a lot of rentals, we can't find anything we can afford that is big enough. We pay $600 to rent a 3BR house, and it's hard to find even the same thing at the same price. Anything we can afford is in a noticeably worse neighborhood, anything in a decent neighborhood jumps right up to $1000 for 4BR. We live in a city, and urban landlords know they can get good money from larger families with public housing vouchers. There is a decent house with 3BR/1.5BA plus a finished basement that could be a bedroom for the girls, with a big yard and a garden shed - but it's $950. As DH heads toward grad school, this is not the time to sign up for higher rent. I could buy a house for that (as if we could get credit).

So, we are back to the fact that Mom already lives in a 4 bedroom house now. We need to figure out how to make it shareable. It will be harder, but it's what we can all afford. If you've been reading here, you might recall that my mother is a compulsive hoarder. There are no cats or garbage bags, but her house is filled to the brim with stuff that will be hard for her to let go. I'm talking every room up to 5-6' high, with little paths. She sleeps curled up on a love seat. Isn't that sad? Changing it will be a physically and emotionally wrenching process for everyone.

My current plan is to find a large storage space. DH has been renting one for $200/month. He sold a house to move in with us, and has a whole house worth of stuff stored closer to Philly, where the storage prices are higher. He has resisted moving it up here, because he hoped we would move back to Philly when he finished his bachelor's degree. That just didn't happen in this economy, and now he has the opportunity of a year-long paid graduate fellowship. So, it's time to get a truck and a bunch of friends to move that stuff up here. It will save him $1200 a year! I am looking for a large enough space that I can also start emptying part of my Mom's house.

I hope that once we get some momentum with storing and donating things, Mom will find it easier, and we will be able to get some repair work and painting done in her house. It's a terrible thing to know that your mom lives in a house full of non-working appliances. We look like we are neglecting her, but she insists on staying - it's part of her compulsive disorder. Now that her decision-making skills are eroding, she will have to be forced. I just keep thinking that a year from now, she might be living in a functional house, doing fun things with family, without the burden of utility bills or unmanageable chores. If she doesn't have a nervous breakdown in the process. (Or maybe I will!)

There is one big fly in the ointment. My thyroid medication isn't working as well as it did when I started it 3 years ago. I am constantly exhausted, falling asleep in my car in front of the house or in a chair every afternoon. My joints ache and I'm often cold, and when I get a chill I feel immobilized by it - not good in February! I need my medication dosage increased - but my doctor is a clinic practitioner that doesn't know how to read thyroid tests. I've gotten a copy of my test results and am trying to get into a different clinic. The stupid medication is only $4 a month - it's not like I am asking for narcotics, dammit. I need all my energy right now! I have another call in to the doctor tomorrow.

I know that I owe emails to a dozen supportive friends and fellow bloggers. My desk is overflowing with things that demand my attention - if I could just stay awake. I will catch up as soon as I can. I am hoping to have rented a storage space and planned the storage move by the end of the month, and then set up a work schedule with Mom.

I did get some good stuff done: freezer inventory, a 3-month stock-up of the bath closet, and we have been doing well at cooking from our pantry. I even cleaned the oven, after a quiche bubbled over and left the kitchen smelling like brimstone.

I just wanted to let everyone know I am still chugging along, and I hope to be back soon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I'm taking a little blogging hiatus.

My mom's gas furnace stopped working last week, filling her house with smoke. Nothing was actually on fire, but she handled the situation poorly. It could have been very dangerous. She stayed with us for a few days while it was mostly fixed, but the whole process revealed new problems with her living alone. We need to dramatically speed up the process of moving her in with us, which will be challenging for everyone.

Right now, the kids take turns sleeping on the floor while she sleeps in their beds. We may be moving - very soon - at a larger rented house. Her house has 4BR, but is in no way ready for anyone to move into it, even with all the elbow grease we could bring to bear. It's not a solution to the immediate problem.

Our current house is so small that we don't have room for a sofa - we have two armchairs and the kids sit on the floor when we all watch a movie. We literally did not have room to add another adult. The single bathroom is a considerable choke point - we seriously need another half bath. All that makes mom feel even more like she is a burden -which we are trying to combat. The feeling that she is a burden or an interruption is one of the things that makes her fail to ask us for help when she absolutely needs to do so. She is actually harder to help because she waits too long to get help with things we could quickly solve.

I will be back soon, maybe just a week or two, maybe longer. I'll try to keep reading most of my Indy blog roll, but I probably won't comment much. I'll keep some notes, so I can return with a big fat Independence Days Challenge Report.

I'll miss you guys!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Independence Challenge - Week 36

DH was going to run errands and he asked everyone if they needed
something. The kids needed chapstick. When he came to me, I joked,
"Can I have a pony, Daddy?" And he got me one! Awww!

I went to the PA Farm Show this past Wednesday. Agriculture is the state's biggest business, so it's like the state trade show. I went on a $16 bus trip arranged by the Extension office. It's nice to get dropped off at the entrance instead of parking and driving. I walked around for a solid 6 hours. I checked out the Alternative Energy section, and the various state and federal agencies. People rave about the food, but I was not too impressed. Too bland, too deep-fried, too over-priced. I surveyed all the food purveyors, ate all the free samples, and collected some brochures from associations that might prove useful, like the PA Nut Grower's Association. There was a commercial market, where I kept expecting to see a Sham-WOW guy. Then a horticulture section, and finally the "Family Living" exhibits where the actual canning, sewing, and baking entries were found. I spent some time in there, looking at what gets a blue ribbon. I watched the Sheep-to-Shawl competition for a little while, and saw a really cool $45 knitted alpaca neck warmer I couldn't afford. Oh, and I saw a lot of exceedingly clean animals!

I enjoyed the day away from home with no kids. I could spend as long as I liked looking at things and talking to people. I spent a long time talking to a woman that works at Old Bedford Village near Pittsburgh. She is an educator that can teach 127 old-fashioned skills. She was threading a loom, with her blacksmith daughter, at the Show. I also found some graphics and activities I can use for my youth food workshop.

But overall, this Show was all about Agribusiness. Big machines, big farms, conventional technology. It didn't have much to do with local food or small family farms. I can't wait for my 4-day trip to the PA Sustainable Agriculture convention the first week of February.

Planted: I decided on seed vendors, but didn't place my final orders yet. I will use Baker's Creek, mostlybecause the catalog is so freakin' cool. I will also order from Amishland, a small veggie seed grower in next-door Lancaster County, since her varieties ought to be good for my region. I am up in the air about where to buy potato and onions sets. My favorite local greenhouse orders them from somewhere nonlocal.

Harvested: Nada.

Preserved: DD12 zested lemons, limes, and oranges for me. I dried the zest, and DD15 juiced them all for the freezer.

Cooked: I moved applesauce from the "preserved" to the "cooked" category because I stopped canning it. Why bother? We go through it as fast as I make it. I found a produce stand at the market that keeps a box of apple seconds under the counter. I got a whole lot of bruised apples for $3. DD12 had stopped eating commercial applesauce, but she seems to like the super-smooth kind that I make. I need to buy one of those apple-peeling machines. Next year, I will buy lots more local apples up at the Kutztown auction.

I had another I-feel-like-cooking spell today. I made chicken corn noodle soup, sweet potato biscuits, chocolate chip cookies, hummus, and a pasta bake. All of it came from storage - yay! I also made yogurt that will be ready in the morning. More applesauce will be cooked tomorrow. My Mom is coming over tomorrow to watch the Inaugration with us, so we'll have plenty of food.

Stocked: Curry powder; I bought 3 ounces ($1/oz) at a Farm Show booth, one hot, 2 mild; I mixed them to get moderately-hot. That gave me a half-pint jar for everyday use, and most of a pint in the pantry. I also stocked pickle relish and decaf Earl Grey tea that was on sale.

Prepped: DH got flashlights and a first aid kit. After our recent mini-power outage, we realized we only had 4 small LED flashlights in our purses and backpacks. The solar lantern we bought a few months ago had to be returned when it would not take a charge, and we never replaced it. DH bought a four pack of traditional flashlights with D-cells, which I might ask him to return. I'd rather spend the $20 on LEDs. He did buy one hand-crank LED flashlight that has an alternate charging cord. That will do for short-term emergency lighting and bug-out bags.

We still need to do work on longer-term low-energy lighting, but probably not in this rented house. I do collect free and cheap candles at yard sales in summer, to remelt into votives. We have used votives to cook, wash dishes, and play Scrabble during outages in the past. We also need to get a rechargeable battery station, and replace that solar lantern.

Managed: I got a few more free 4-gal buckets from the Weis bakery. They throw them out on Mondays and Thursdays, so I have to stop on Sundays and Wednesdays. I did better at preventing food waste this week. Did find a tiny shriveled head of cabbage under all the carrots. Worm food, now.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: I was planning to order more red worms for the compost bin, but when I checked on the little guys this week, they were doing pretty darned good. The level of bedding and food is way down. We added more bedding and a bunch of apple peels. I think maybe they are finding their groove. There were a whole lot of little white egg-like things that don't look like the worm egg case photos on the internet. That bears watching.

Local Food: We shop weekly at our local farmer's market, which is not all local food, but is all local small businesses. We visit a locally-owned grocery liquidator about once a month. We sometimes visit Aldi, which has good prices on case goods, but is owned by a European corporation. We sometimes buy things at BJ's Wholesale Club (Masschusetts company). But I still need a regular grocery store for some items, and I have been trying to decide where to spend those dollars. When I am doing a big stock-up, it is worth shopping the loss leaders of all three local chains. But not worth driving around just to pick up a few things. All of them have similar loss-leader prices. I decided to research and compare the three:
Giant: 148 stores in the Mid-Atlantic. Founded in Central Pennsylvania, they are now owned by a supermarket group HQ'd in the Netherlands. They've opened new suburban upscale stores, recently. They are one of two chains with locations in the City of Reading, on Rockland Street. DH likes their layout, selection, and upscale feel. They have a growing organic section.

Weis: 155 stores in a market area similar to Giant. Founded and still owned by a Pennsylvania corporation, with food processing plants in central PA. Bill themselves as one of the largest buyers of PA produce and dairy. They also have a store in the City, on Rockland Street, but it has not been updated in a long time. They used to have half-off day-old bread that I liked for bread pudding, but they stopped doing that, which annoys me. They have also reportedly stopped donating to food banks, which really annoys me.

Redner's: 39 stores in the Mid-Atlantic. They have a "warehouse" theme, are employee-owned, and are HQ'd here in Berks County. They would seem like the localest, even though they do not have a city location. But, my mother slipped in a puddle of Coke in front of a broken soda machine; her back still hurts. After dragging their feet for 2 years, Redner's finally sent an insuffcient check for her medical expenses, leading us to an attorney and a lawsuit. After another 2 years of foot-dragging, she still got an insufficient settlement. She'd been a customer for 40+ years. So, on one hand, they are the most local use of my food dollar. On the other, there's Mom, and they have no city location.

My Pick: Weis. They employ the most people, buy a lot of PA produce, the money stays in the state, and they have kept their city store. DH notes that I will never find a store that doesn't do something that ticks me off.
I also found a local spring water company, Great Oak, that has fill-your-own kiosks for .25/gallon. The fluoride level is .5mg/L, half the level in the city tap water. I am trying to avoid fluoride for my thryroid.

Learned: We had our first few Tai Chi classes. Turns out, I am also taking Kung Fu. The folks at the studio were glad to see us back, and since I have to wait for DH ad DD15 during Kung Fu, I thought I might give it a try. I suspect they will not let me stop trying. I feel too "breakable" for this, but they are very supportive. Even though I was mostly sparring with teenaged boys, they took my efforts seriously, which was kind of them. If fat middle-aged women ever attack them on the street, they will be well-prepared. The return to Tai Chi feels good - it is coming back to me quickly.

Library: I found a bit of fiction on the church book sale shelf, and a big photography book about the 20th Century. DD12 likes those, and I like them when they are a dollar. But mostly I am reading research materials about Ethical Eating issues and food coop management right now.

Behavior: I found a replacement for that Burger King fish sandwich I liked so much. There is a fish stand at the market that breads their own haddock filet. No seafood is local to me, and I don't know if this is Atlantic hook-and-line caught. It's still deep-fried fish, but it didn't come from a fast food chain. I think it's a good occassional indulgence.

We did well with our fast food challenge this week - I don't think any of us had any at all. DH took leftover lasagna to his class, and DD12 packed lunch nicely. Not as good on the 5x oatmeal challenge. I need to take my thyorid pill before 9 AM (you have to wait an hour before eating), or I get busy and don't remember to eat until lunch.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Best New Pantry Recipes

In 2008, I entered over 500 recipes into my collection at Many of them were my own tattered recipe cards, or recipes I had tested from my cookbook collection. But many were also new entries from TV shows, blogs, cooking websites, and email lists. I haven't even tried all of them yet. Among those that were new to us, some have become family favorites. Each one of these introduced us to a new pantry staple:

Slow Cooker Pinto Beans - This one came from Paula Deen, at the suggestion of a listmate on the HealthyCheapCooking list on Yahoo Groups. The butchers up North don't have streak o' lean, so I use other smoked pork goodness - ham shanks are my favorite, but I also also get smoked ham ends and smoked sausage. We've eaten it as a main dish, and as a side with other meals. It really expanded the use of pinto beans for me - I had only really used them for refried beans until I tried this. I live in a city with a big Hispanic population, so I can get large bags of dry pintos inexpensively.

Cheese Grits - It was about this time last year that I watched Alton Brown cook grits on the Food Network, and decided to give it a try. Until then, the only grits I'd eaten were tasteless gruel at diners. But these were to-die-for. DD15 didn't like them at first, but has now become a grits machine, especially with her sage-flavored peppery milk gravy. I store supermarket grits now, but I'm looking for artisan stone-ground grits to try.

(Ignore those crumbs under the toaster over.)

Sweet Potato Biscuits - These were my first scratch biscuits, and I was so happy with them, especially with pineapple jam. This recipe gave us both a new bread product and another way to use leftover sweet potatoes. Now I keep a jar of sweet potato puree in the fridge. I found several sources of local sweet potatoes this year.

Green Tomato Chutney - My new favorite condiment. I only just started canning jam this summer, and I'd never ever eaten chutney before, but I saw the recipe on a blog around the time that a neighbor pruned a lot of green tomatoes from her plants. I love it with roast meat or poultry. I'm very happy with the jam, chutney, and pickles I made this summer, and I plan to do a lot more canning next summer.

Parsnip Spice Cake - I've taken this to several potlucks with good reviews. I like the versatility of adding whatever dried fruit or nuts I want. I'd never tried parsnips before, but now I regularly buy and use them to flavor stock and make this coffee cake. When I don't like a vegetable on its own, I tend to turn it into a quick bread. I like that I can grow parsnips and store them in the ground all winter. I can't recall where this recipe came from, but I want to make it whenever I see parsnips.

Cuban Inspired Pork Chili - Hominy was another first for us. I store it dried and canned. The local Hispanic grocery stores always stock it. I like chili, but not as hot as DH does - and he doesn't like beans in it. But this chili comes across more like a pork stew, and it gives me a good place to use more black beans, and fresh or frozen corn. I found this recipe at the cooking blog Coconut & Lime, and substituted regular tomatoes and cheap country-style pork ribs for the fancier ingredients.

Spelt Waffles - DD12 used to be addicted to Eggo toaster waffles. We got her a waffle iron for Christmas 2007, and tried a few recipes with all-purpose flour. But when I found a local source for spelt flour, I went looking for a waffle recipe. DD12 likes to whip up the egg whites for this one. We double the recipe, so there are lots of leftovers to freeze for reheating in the toaster. I like to dip pieces of waffle in fruity yogurt or homemade applesauce.

Yogurt - Not so much a recipe as a technique. I heat two quarts of milk and 1/2 cup non-fat dry milk to about 190F. Then I let it cool to 120F, whisk in a half-pint of yogurt I set aside from the previous batch, and pour it into quart containers. I bundle it into an insulated lunch bag with a hot water bottle, and it's lovely by morning. I haven't purchased yogurt since June. I love it in oatmeal with a dab of honey or homemade jam. When I first thought about making yogurt, I thought I needed a yogurt maker, but when I advertised for one on the local Freecycle list, a Lebanese woman answered me with instructions to make it in a blanket-wrapped crockpot liner. I adapted that to my insulated lunch bag.

So, have any of you found recipes that have become new favorites at your house?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Independence Challenge - Week 35

These little bakers fit right in the toaster oven, but I need
to rotate them during baking to avoid the hot spots.
Still, mighty tasty apple bread pudding.

The most valuable thing I control is how I spend my time, so I am working on wasting less. For many people, TV and computer time are a waste, but I value our controlled family TV watching and discussing. The Planet Earth series has been spectacular and inspiring.
Not a Waste: cooking, eating, sleeping, reading, talking, listening, networking, tai chi, foot massage, snuggling, walking

Waste: bickering, negative people, useless ranting, bad movies, clutter, perfectionism, being so tired I fall asleep in the bathroom and wake up freezing
I would rather spend time with family than accidentally waste it on dumb stuff. I am trying to avoid some of the obvious "interesting time wasters" that can cause an hour to speed past. For instance, no more writing long snarky blog comments in places I don't normally read (usually because someone has irritated me). I don't consider blogging and commenting itself to be a waste - I have gotten more done since I started blogging. But I need to be careful about reading the New York Times headlines that arrive in my email. If I click on articles, I can spend an hour on the news, in what seems to go by in the blink of any eye. I will save my newsreading for evenings, after a day of doing things on my to-do lists.

I am also looking for things we can do while watching TV. DD15 is making felt cozies to sell on Etsy. DD12 is drawing paper doll kits. My mom peeled apples for sauce while enjoying I Love Lucy. There are limits to what my hands can do, but I am trying: cracking and cleaning nuts, sorting seed, giving myself a manicure. I have a circular knitter to try making a neck warmer, in hopes that my hands allow that kind of knitting. I can also sort papers and photos.

DD12 and I went to a monthly local scrapbooking group on Friday. It's $5 and you get to use all sorts of fancy die-cut machines. I am a little concerned that it will turn into a time and money-sucking hobby with lots of things to store, but I will combat that. It think it was a measure of my developing "independence eye" that I reacted differently than I once would have to the hostess's huge scrapbooking basement full of supplies. I once would have envied it. I still lust after that kind of space - but I envisioned shelves full of food storage, not paper supplies! I kept thinking about how much money these women were wasting on this hobby. Not that there is anything at all wrong with scrapbooking - we plan to continue doing it. But the "toys" and over-priced supplies - oy! One advantage of the group "crops" is that everyone contributes to paying for and using the expensive machines.

I would like to do as much as I can with things in everyday newspapers, magazines, ads, and with vintage paper, books, and old photos. Not to mention our own everyday stuff, like ticket stubs, birthday cards, and fortune cookie slips. I lean more toward book arts and altered art, rather then pre-made paper cutsies that require trips to the craft store. I only want to buy the most basic tools, blades and adhesives. I really want to develop an activity to do with DD12, especially since the rest of us are going back to martial arts classes (you'll see, below), and she liked this.

Planted: Nothing, but I made a planting timeline for spring. I am working my way through the seed catalogs. Wow, it's hard not to want to buy more seeds than I can possibly use in my small gardens.

Harvested: Naught.

This giant Dutch oven full of apples cooked down to a little over 2 quarts.

Made two quarts of applesauce to split between Mom and I. She peeled, I cooked. There was a bit more that we gobbled up immediately. Just apples, water, and a dash of lemon juice. I burnt my tongue tasting it too soon. I made it very smooth with a hand blender, and it even passed muster with super-picky DD12, who now takes some to school for lunch. Gotta get more apples, pronto. Also froze 8 quarts of lovely dark pork stock, a monthly task, this time from New Year's pork bones I got at market.

Cooked: Once in a while I have a day where I just want to cook everything. I think it was the new silicon baking mats. I made Sweet Potato Biscuits early on, and then DH was going to meet friends for a 'Guys Night Out', so I had 'Girls Night At The Stove'. I made a big batch of mincemeat cookies, baked sweet potatoes, and tried a tomato lentil soup recipe from the NYT (blah). DD12 made tortilla pizza. Mom peeled all my apples and I made applesauce to split with her. We didn't can it, since we are sure we can each eat a quart in a week or so. Fed the worms under the table. Mom crashed watching Wall-E, so we tucked her in DD12's bed for a sleepover. She says she doesn't want to stay the winter, but I think she likes coming over if she doesn't "have to."

I've said a couple times that I want to learn making biscuits - no time like the New Year to get started. I started with an easy drop-biscuit recipe. The Sweet Potato Biscuits were very good, but they freakin' ROCK with Sunshine Jam! It's a great way to use up leftover holiday sweet potatoes. DH also made a Roast Pork for New Year's Day, that was great with the Green Tomato Chutney I made this summer. I looove having jam and condiments I made myself!

Stored: Made a trip to the grocery liquidator, which is always fun. I feel like a total hunter-gatherer in there, since the merchandise changes all the time. I replenished a bunch of what we used in the past few months: a bale of toilet paper, 3 boxes of Total and Wheaties, 3 boxes stuffing (for DH), 2 bottles olive oil, 2 bottles balsamic vinegar, 6 big cans tomatoes, 6 cans paste, 6 cans cranberry juice concentrate, 2 big cans refried beans, 2 cans chick peas, 6 cans pumpkin, 3 cans turnip greens, cream of coconut, 2 lbs. raisins, 2 boxes of saltines, 5 boxes dehydrated mincemeat, 1-lb canisters of cinnamon and ground black pepper.

DD12 is packing her lunches now, so I picked up some small bottles of 100% juice and 3 boxes of chewy granola bars. She has a reusable water bottle, but I only want water in there, so I plan to reuse these small bottles. I need to figure out how to make chewy granola bars for her, although for now, the $1.50/box at the liquidator may be less than I would pay for dried fruit and nuts.

I found a box of Kashi puffed whole grain cereal, which I want to turn into some kind of snack bar, like better rice crispy bars. I found one recipe on the Kashi website, but if anyone has other recipe ideas, please let me know.

Prepped: I guess this could be consider preparation, since it increases our health and self-defense capacities. DH signed us up to go back to Tai Chi and King Fu classes. DH and DD15 take Wing Chun kung fu, and all three of us do Tai Chi. DD12 doesn't want to do any of it, which bugs me, but she is old enough to stay home alone, so it is not an obstacle to the rest of us. The Wing Chun and Tai Chi classes are slightly different times. I will try to go 3x a week for an hour: Mon, Thurs, and Sat. DD15 and DH will hit different weekday classes around their work schedules, and we all go together on Saturday mornings - they do Wing Chun @ 10 while I warm up my joints, and we all do Tai Chi at 11. We all got a lot out of this when we did it for 9 months. We had to quit a year ago due to money constraints. It is on my wishlist, when we have a different house, to have space dedicated to tai chi and martial arts. DH wants a heavy bag and a wooden dummy, and I want a wall of mirrors. It would be also a good space for dance, indoor games, and to set up tables and chairs for events and gatherings. But, that's getting ahead of myself.

We had a snow storm Saturday, and the power went out briefly after dark. Just long enough for me to go "Uh oh - do I really know where the flashlights are?" It would have gotten cold fast, because we keep the house so much colder now. Less residual heat. I thought about the gas oven as a short-term solution - but it has an electric ignition. We are moderately well-prepared to leave in a hurry, to bug-out, but less prepared to stay than I'd like to think. We need to make the flashlights handier, and think about back-up heat in a rented house we cannot change dramatically.

DH added a few more items to our emergency bug-out kits: 6 decks of playing cards, all-weather notebooks and mess kits. I don't know if I would have purchased kits; I could have assembled them from used stuff. But I gave him a task and he is hard at it. We are missing the easiest part of the bug-out kits, simply putting a change of clothes and some toiletries in our four bags. Discussion revealed that none of us had pants that we could take out of our weekly rotation to leave in a bug-out bag for a whole season. We are short on pants, apparently. We decided to each chose a set of worn-but-serviceable clothing, and replace it by buying pants. I wear the same "uniform" all year - khakis and t-shirts. I add a sweatshirt in the winter, and wear a button-down shirt for meetings. I have a few dresses, but seldom have occassion to wear them. I've become quite utilitarian in middle age. I wear mostly the same brand of pants all the time - Denim & Co, sold on QVC, so the size is very standardized, and there are always returns available on eBay. DD15 is taking mid-term exams this week, but when she is done, I think we need to have a Bug-Out Packing Day.

Managed: I read an article about spoilage from Matron of Husbandry, and checked my squash more closely. I have two with bad spots at the stems. Time to make something. We don't like just plain squash, so I usually bake with it, but I keep reading that I should use canned to bake, for consistent water content. Guess it will be soup!

Saved two spoiling apples by making apple bread pudding with stale whole wheat bread. In the fridge, we lost a partial jar of apple butter to mold. I should put it in half-pint jars from now on, since we don't eat it fast enough. I found a chunk of blue cheese between the tortilla bags. So, is extra mold on the outside of moldy cheese bad, or not? I saved it for research purposes.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: DD12 proposed a family fast food challenge that will hopefuly reduce our family's contribution to plastic in the world. I turn down plastic bags everywere. One market produce vendor wanted to put each veg in a separate baggie, and seemed resistant to just putting them naked in my canvas bag. The spinach comes in a plastic clamshell. I must grow my spinach next year.

Local Food Systems: I was offered a free place to stay in State College for the PA Sustainable Agriculture conference in February. That makes it so much more affordable for me! I am planning to network and gather resources for my food discussion group, bulk buying coop, and youth food workshop series. I went to Penn State in the 80's, so I am looking forward to seeing how it has changed. My hosts heat with a wood stove, so I will get to see what that is like in the depth of winter in the Pennsylvania mountains. I keep running into these solutions for my little problems; I must be going in the right direction.

Learned: DH started his EMT training course. He already updated his CPR skills and got certified for that, in the first class. One of the trainers said, "I'm 73 and I can tell immediately who will make it and who will not. I see 9 in this class of 48 that won't make it - you are not one of them." Although, I have to quietly snicker when I see on his schedule that there is an OB/GYN segment. DH grew up in a house of only men. The discussion of anything menstrual squicks him, unless it benefits him directly - as in warnings like, "Look out! It's PMS week!". He says he will have to "do some growing." Hee hee!

Library: I will be busting my butt to finish reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Sunday morning for the church book club. I have not been buying books much lately. I need to get back in the habit of working on my list.

Behavior: I am making a new Challenge category for myself. Sharon recently added "Regeneration" but I haven't been able to wrap my head around that. But my family is engaged in several behavior changes, so it seems more useful to track that. I am doing OK, but not great with oatmeal. I have to take a pill when I wake up, and wait an hour to eat. The problem comes when someone else wakes up, and wants to make breakfast. I end up saying "Sure, I'll have what you are making." I am the only oatmeal eater. Maybe I can have oatmeal for lunch on days when that happens.

The fast food challenge went OK for everyone but DD12, who is the one that proposed it. That raised the problem of her very picky eating again. She didn't pack a sandwich for that scrapbook thing, and I did. She wanted a burger on the way home, and I bought it for her. I have to deal with my own issues about letting her experience "starving" if I want her doesn't plan and eat better. On the plus side, she tried eating raw spinach and liked it. That's pretty big.