Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What I've Been Reading: Fall 2017, Part One

Since Zach and I gave up Internet (and ran out of Parks and Recreation seasons on DVD), we’ve been doing a lot more reading. This newfound time, coupled with the natural tendency for winter to encourage holing up with a good book, has allowed me to steadily blade through my reading list! Here are some of my favorites from the past couple months.

The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country by Peter Bane

Have you ever wanted to create a diverse self-reliant homestead while creating community and saving the planet at the same time? If you do, The Permaculture Handbook is the book for you. This weighty tome (it weighs like five pounds) is a dense, rambling, make-your-eyes-cross-technical-but-somehow-incredibly-accessible, inspirational textbook that outlines what a crazy abundant life looks like. It’s dizzying and puzzling and packed full of hands-on practicality. Reading it from start to finish felt like a chore, but I liked it so much that I bought a copy, and I’m excited for it to arrive so I can spot-read through it again.

Basically, a “garden farm” is a small-scale farm that aims to be a space for living, working, growing, connecting, and sustaining. The whole book discusses every possible angle for helping to make this situation reality. Bane’s advice errs on the side of being prescriptive— I don’t have a large kitchen, room for a sauna, or an inclination to make pie for every meal— but that’s one of its strengths as well, because of the specific examples of what can work. There are also several profiles throughout the books that illustrate his garden farm model in various settings (including his own garden farm in Indiana; I was happy to read a book written from a Midwestern perspective!). 

In short, this book isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s well worth picking up, even if you just look through the index to search for relevant topics. His final chapters, where he envisions the US’s suburbs turned into a patchwork of garden farms, is a vision worth holding onto.

The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living by Mark Boyle

I glimpsed this on the library shelf and I thought, “Ah, this book is going to either be super cool or really annoying.” Turns out it was the former! I blazed through it in no time, listening to the narrative of Boyle’s year-long period in the UK without spending any money. He is a philosopher and an economist (and quite funny, to boot) who believes that money is the root of the major woes of the modern industrial world, and he calls us to action to dismantle the systems of oppression and exploitation.

In case I need to clarify, I don’t agree with his premise. I see money as a neutral tool rather than a symptom of a broken system (although I do believe the system is broken in many ways!). And Boyle is up front about his dependence on money systems throughout the year— biking on roads paid for by taxes, for instance— which keeps the narrative from sounding too self-righteous or annoying.

However, regardless of what you think of his underlying premise, it was fascinating to read about how he lived and hear his musings about the ways that money has distanced us from the resources we consume. In the modern world, we exchange money for everything, but what if we could barter, swap, grow, make, scavenge, forage and mend more of our own stuff? How has money impacted community, or lack thereof? How can you function in a world where everything you do is tied up with global systems of inequality and destruction, and what kinds of solutions are there? Boyle believes strongly that the “freeconomy” is the answer, and while I don’t agree with him, I think he has a lot of useful things to say. I’m currently reading his follow-up, The Moneyless Manifesto, and quite enjoying his perspective.

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Mom read all these books to us when I was a kid, one of the few series I actually liked that featured female protagonists. It was a treat to read through them again, with a greater appreciation of the hardship of their lives. Caroline Ingalls is my hero. Not only did she know how to churn butter and mend clothing and render lard, but she faced the uncertainty of life on the prairie with a kind of moral courage that I can’t even begin to fathom. Definitely glad I revisited!

Coming soon... more books!


Saturday, December 9, 2017

November/December Garden Updates

This pretty much sums up Bobbie Dylan's personality: perpetually terrified.

A small harvest of chard before the hard frost hit
Between us being gone all summer and the weather now hitting freezing temperatures consistently, it’s not surprising that I’m not growing much in my garden right now. However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been busy! 

First of all, our chickens are continuing to grow wonderfully! They’ve transitioned from cheeping to soft honks that border on the edge of sounding like clucking (and the occasional bu-KAWK! when I have to catch them to put them back inside). They’re clearly sorting out the pecking order, but so far with minimal violence. (I can’t tell who’s the head chicken, but Bobbie Dylan is definitely at the bottom.) They’ve held up to the cold snaps quite well (although they often resemble balls of feathers more than chickens when it’s chilly out). Their water keeps freezing, but Zach just bought them a heated dog dish, which we’re hoping will work out.

We also made a decision about the chickens’ living quarters. After moving their bulky run a grand total of once, Zach proposed that we park their coop somewhere stationary. I agreed, and we put it against the side of our garage. The most plentiful source of carbon (dry brown material) we had were autumn leaves from my parents’ house, so we laid down a thick layer. Turns out the chickens love it! They scratch and forage through the leaves, dig holes for dust baths, and peep excitedly when they find a bit of grass sticking up through the layer. I still let them out at least once a day to forage through the yard, where they peck at dandelions and clover. While doing that a few days ago, I met the new owners of the house right next to us, and they told me that they love chickens, which was a big relief!

Another project we worked on in November was creating a better compost pile. Our original pile was mostly just a little heap of leaves and straw that I threw food into. We decided that it was time to ramp it up a notch, so we salvaged some pallets, laid down three straw bales (after-Halloween clearance, $2 each), and piled our compost materials on top of it. We now have a steady influx of chicken bedding, too, which adds some great volume and a lot of nutrients. Whenever I turn the compost over to tuck more food scraps inside, it’s so hot that it steams. This makes me ridiculously happy. 

I also put together a cold frame, although you’re really not supposed to try to grow things from seed in winter because of the lack of daylight. Still, I thought it was worth a shot: using four straw bales, some fill dirt, and an old window (but not one with lead paint this time, unlike last year!), I cobbled a cold frame together. I scattered some nearly-expired seeds, watered them heavily, and have pretty much ignored them every since. So far, the spinach has sprouted nicely and I think I even have two cabbages (or possibly kale) coming up! I’m not sure how they’ll continue to grow, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

When my mom asked me what I was thankful for at Thanksgiving, I responded without hesitation, “My chickens and my compost pile.” They are both big steps on the way toward creating a thriving suburban homestead, and I’m excited to see both of them grow.


Thursday, December 7, 2017

This Week (Okay, More Like Three Weeks): A Story in Photos

Happy December, everyone! As usual I am caught up in the whirlwind of life during St. Charles Christmas Traditions, but I wanted to check in and share some fun photos from the past few weeks. Hope you’re having a great Christmas season!


First of all, a bit overdue: my Halloween costume as a Beatnik (yes, that is a paper cigarette).

Zach and Pirate Buffy having some quality time.
My friend Amy chilling with Fluffy Buffy.
Zach teaching his brother how to skip rocks in the Missouri River.

My good friend Mikko parading with her brother Mikkel at St. Charles Christmas Traditions! (Photo by Wendy Lovelace)
And then a few shots of my favorite river.

Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Eat More Vegetables (Part 2 of 2)

Spinach soup, from a Moosewood cookbook

Without further ado, my favorite ways to eat vegetables (and fruits that are vegetable-like)!

Avocados— Make guacamole by mashing an avocado with some lemon or lime juice, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Eat with chips or any kind of Mexican dish.

Beets— Shred one beet and two large carrots with a box grater, then sauté the shreds in a hot pan. Serve with ground beef or parmesan, topped with a fried egg.

Bok Choy— Chop into bite-sized strips and lightly cook with a bit of water in a pan. Drain the water and dress the greens with soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a dash of Sriracha.

Broccoli— Toss into stir-fry, or chop into bite-sized pieces, douse in oil and roast in a hot oven until crispy.

Brussels Sprouts— Make this recipe. Zach thought he didn’t like Brussels sprouts until he tried them this way.

Cabbage— Great for sauerkraut (a bit time-consuming, but easy) or cabbage stir-fry (super easy).

Carrots— Eat raw with dip, shred to use in a hash, throw into a stir-fry, or chop into tiny pieces and boil with pasta water, then toss into pasta sauce. Carrots are good with everything.

Cauliflower— Eat raw with dip, or roast a whole head with a coating of salt, pepper, and curry powder.

Celery— I don’t like it raw, but it’s an important ingredient in soup stock (along with carrots and onions).

Corn— Corn on the cob, of course! You can also slice off the kernels and mix them into burritos. 

Cucumbers— Peel if the skin is tough, chop into thin coins, and drizzle with some vinegar, salt and pepper. Or make Bulgarian salad: sliced cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, and hard white cheese (feta, goat cheese, etc.).

Garlic— Add this to any savory dish, or to one part red wine or apple cider vinegar and two parts olive oil for a delicious dressing.

Green Beans— Sauté in a hot pan with garlic and parmesan until tender.

Leeks— Use the white parts like a sharper-tasting onion, or simmer slices of the whole plant in water with carrot and celery to create a delicious broth.

Lettuce— The key to lettuce is knowing how to make delicious dressing (see my previous post and Oh She Glows).

Mushrooms— Chop finely and stir them into pasta sauce, or slice thin and fry in butter with onions or garlic.

Onions— Good in absolutely everything, but be sure you sauté them long enough. If you slice them thin, salt them, and gently sautee them in oil for an hour, they become deliciously sweet. Caramelized onions are the base for French onion soup (just add broth), and they can be spread on toast or mixed into eggs.

Peas— Excellent for stir-fry, but also great in plain pasta with butter and parmesan.

Peppers— So many uses! Fajitas are my favorite, but you can stuff and bake them, chop them into burritos, or eat them raw with dip.

Potatoes— Bake them, mash them, fry them: you know how to make potatoes. Here’s one of my favorite go-to potato recipes.

Spinach— Great for blending into smoothies! Also a great addition to pasta— finely chop and add just before serving.

Sweet Potatoes— I like to roast these much like potatoes and throw them into salads, mix them with pasta or quinoa, or top the pieces with a fried egg. You can also fry the skin peels in lard for instant sweet potato chips.

Swiss Chard— Chop finely and heat up with a can of black beans, chili powder, garlic, and tomatoes. Serve on tortillas with sour cream and a fried egg for awesome huevos rancheros.

Tomatoes— You know what to do with these! It’s especially important to eat tomatoes in peak season. In the summer, someone you know probably grows tomatoes. See if you can beg them to sell or trade you some.

Winter Squash— My favorite is butternut squash, which I roast and use like sweet potatoes. Spaghetti squash is interesting too: see these instructions.

What are your favorite ways to eat these veggies? Let me know in the comments!


Thursday, November 16, 2017

How to Eat More Vegetables (Part 1 of 2)

Regardless of which dietary guidelines you follow, everyone agrees that we should eat more vegetables. But what if you don’t like vegetables, or don’t know how to cook them? That was sort of me when I began my journey into adulthood. I was used to salads made with romaine or iceberg, veggies out of a can, and fruit in heavy syrup (yummy!). But as grocery stores started carrying a larger variety of veggies, and as I started volunteering on farms and learning about different kinds of produce, I realized that I had a lot to learn.

Over time, I’ve learned to like most vegetables (though with varying degrees of enthusiasm). Zach is my guinea pig; he doesn’t like most veggies, so if I can fix something in a way that he likes, I know it’s a winner.

There are some great ingredient-based recipe collections out there (check out Dishing Up the Dirt for some truly gourmet dishes), but if you’re like me, you might need to start small and simple. I hope this post is helpful.

Principles for eating more vegetables:

1. Forget about buying veggies in a can. Ideally, you’d buy your produce from a farmers market or farm stand. But let’s be honest, most of us aren’t there yet. Just buy whole veggies at a grocery store, and try to stay in season. (What’s in season? Check out this map!) Frozen veggies are another good option, just be sure you’ve chosen something that thaws well.

2. If you don’t like a particular vegetable, try it cooked a different way— roasted instead of raw, sautéed instead of steamed, etc. This doesn’t mean you’ll ever truly like it (I’m still not crazy about eggplant), but give it a shot before dismissing it.

3. Roasting hardy vegetables is one of my favorite ways to eat them. Preheat the oven to 450ºF, cut the veggies into bite-sized pieces, place on a sheet pan, and drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper on top. Toss to coat them evenly, then put in the oven and check after twenty minutes. If they’re still really hard, check again after fifteen minutes. Or if they’re starting to soften, check every five to ten minutes afterward. When roasted, all sorts of veggies— beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, onions, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, etc.— become caramelized and sweet. You can eat the roasted veggies hot with rice or meat, or cold with a salad later on.

4. Stir-fries are another great way to try new veggies. Chop the pieces small, and sort them by cooking time (carrots and onions take a long time, broccoli a few minutes, garlic and peas very little). Sauté them at high heat to sear the outsides. 

5. Sauces and dressings are very important, especially for the non veggiephiles in the audience. Here are some of my favorites:

Butter sauce: Melt butter with some crushed garlic and spices such as Italian seasoning, curry powder, chili powder and cumin, or paprika and pepper.

White sauce: Melt together a few tablespoons each butter and flour, whisking in the hot pan until the mixture turns golden, which can take several minutes (this is called making a roux). Crush some garlic in there if you want. Add milk gradually, stirring quickly until the sauce is the consistency you want. Add a generous dose of pepper and serve.

Kung Pao sauce: Cookie and Kate has an excellent recipe.

Basic vinaigrette: Mix salt and pepper with some vinegar (red wine, apple cider, or balsamic), then add twice as much oil as vinegar and thoroughly shake. Or, if you want to be fancy, first mix the vinegar with crushed garlic and Dijon mustard.

Creamy dressing or dip: You can use sour cream, but I love using drained kefir (kefir that has been drained through a cloth napkin for several hours) because the consistency is perfect. Either way, add a generous shake of onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and dill or parsley flakes to create your own ranch or French onion dip. Thin with a little milk or water to make a dressing.

If you want something more gourmet, Oh She Glows has some amazing sauces, too. 

Other spices that go well with veggies:

Curry powder— carrots, cauliflower, onions, peas, sweet potatoes
Paprika, garlic, and/or onion powder— everything, but especially potatoes
Thyme, rosemary, and/or sage— potatoes, winter squash, carrots
Lemon— everything but especially anything bitter like broccoli, kale, or Swiss chard

Tomorrow, I’ll give a list of how I cook my favorite veggies. 

Do you have any tips to add?


Friday, November 10, 2017

This Week (Five Years, Life at Home)

Last week, Zach and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary! In some ways, it feels like it hasn’t been that long, but on the other hand, it’s as if we’ve been together forever. Since we spent all summer gallivanting around, we decided to have a “staycation” this year. 

It was marvelous in every way. We slept in late, spent huge amounts of time cooking fancy meals (French toast made with homemade sourdough, the most delicious fondue ever, pumpkin pie), hiked through local conservation areas (Weldon Spring and Olin Nature Preserve— since autumn was so late this year, we got to see some gorgeous fall colors!), shopped a farmers market to buy ingredients for kimchi, watched movies from the library, visited an Audubon center and the National Great Rivers Museum, watched Thor: Ragnarok with a friend, and generally just celebrated all the little things that make everyday life beautiful. (Doing dishes is much better when you’re listening to Steely Dan and chatting with your husband about permaculture mulching systems.) 

I finished the staycation feeling happy and ready to tackle everyday life with more gusto. There are so many wonderful things to do and see right where we are, if we just pay attention to them. 

Happy November!


P.S. The chickens are continuing to thrive despite the sub-freezing temps at night. Fortunately they're very fluffy!


Friday, October 27, 2017

This Week: A Cold Snap, Outdoor Chickens, and Persimmons

Chicory, one of my favorite fall flowers

Summer has finally left! After weeks of unseasonably warm weather, we’ve been blessed with yellowing leaves, bright cold evenings, and freezing wind that makes my face turn to goosebumps when I run outside to take care of the chickens. ...Yes, St. Louis really does only have two seasons, summer and winter. Oh well!

Speaking of chickens, ours have been growing like crazy— they’re fully feathered now and collectively wolfing down a quart of feed a day. We finished the run enough to let them outside, and they’ve been managing beautifully, despite the cold snap. They love to dust bathe, chase crickets and flies, run around like crazy for no reason, and try to intimidate each other by facing off and extending their necks with ruffed feathers. There’s no clear pecking order yet, but I’m sure one will emerge soon.

Artemis, Isbushka, Bobbie, and Fluffy Buffy

Also, all five of them have names, since I can reliably tell them apart now, both by appearance and by personality. Pirate Buffy is the friendliest and doesn’t mind being held. Fluffy Buffy is the most adamant dust-bather and bug-hunter. Artemis Mayfeather is named after the goddess of the hunt because of her cricket-catching abilities (she even ate a full-sized grasshopper the other day). Isbushka Mayfeather is always trying to sneak out of the run when I open the door. And Bobbie Dylan is still scared of everything, sounding a desperate warning cry every time a plane flies over, and always the last chicken to snatch any treats I feed them (she will also, however, find bugs and call to the other chicks so they come running— a rooster-like trait that I hope doesn’t mean she’s male).

The run has been safe from predators so far, although the neighborhood hawk checked them out and nearly terrified them to death. But so far, so good.

Pirate Buffy and Isbushka

Other activities last week included a glorious hike at Pere Marquette State Park with Zach and my brother Christian who just returned from his summer at Yellowstone. Christian convinced me to sample some fallen persimmons, and I tentatively licked the fruit, expecting the face-sucking sourness that they’re known for. Instead, I tasted a jammy, tropical-flavored fruit without a trace of sourness. Persimmons are amazing! We ate so many that I got a stomachache, and brought some of the seeds back in hopes of planting them.

The view from McAdams Peak

Last weekend, and now this weekend, are taken up with the St. Charles Halloween Festival, Legends and Lanterns. If you’re in the St. Louis area and like Halloween, you should definitely come check it out! I hear that the most famous witch of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga, is awesome.
...although a bit cranky.

That’s all for this week! What have you been up to?


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Six Expenses We Choose to Have

In my previous post, I talked about expenses we avoid. Today, I’m talking about things that we’re happy to put our money toward!

You’ll note that these are expenses, which are different from charitable giving, savings, and investments (all of which are financial commitments that we highly prioritize). We don’t have to spend money on any of these items— but we choose to because they’re important to us.

1. High-quality eggs, dairy, and meat. We have ethical concerns with all three industries, so we’re trying to move away from conventional animal products as much as possible. We spend a good chunk of money buying humanely-raised eggs from the farmers’ market and our neighbor (although obviously we’re hoping to start collecting eggs from our chickens this spring!). We get a biweekly deliver of Oberweis’s whole milk and butter. (This is the best dairy option we’ve found so far, but if anyone knows a good source of local small-farm dairy in the St. Louis area, please let me know!) We buy almost no meat (we eat it probably once every three weeks, if that), but when we do, we try to invest in pastured meat and use up every scrap.

2. Local food. I go out of my way to visit the farmer’s market for fruits and veggies. This is more an expense of time and convenience than money, since in-season produce bought directly from a farmer is often comparable to what you can buy at Walmart. The problem is that farmers’ market season is almost over! I’m still trying to figure out how to buy local food in the winter— I’d appreciate any tips on this matter.

3. Quality athletic shoes. I don’t know if you know this, but Zach and I walk. A lot. As a result, we wear through shoes quicker than anyone else I know. We figured out a long time ago that buying $30 pairs of shoes every two months was not worth it. We now wear Asics and Solomon brand. Not cheap, but so worth it.

4. Bike accessories. Zach recently bought an electric bike trailer that gives him the extra speed boost he needed to bike the 20-miles round-trip to work. Although his fluctuating schedule makes it difficult to do this on a regular basis, we’re hoping this is part of a long-term plan to get off car transportation as much as possible.

5. Chickens. Getting everything set up for the chickens has been expensive! From the henhouse to the coop materials, we’ve been dishing out some cash. However, it’ll be worth it to grow eggs right in our own backyard. (If you’re wondering, feeding chickens and collecting their eggs is not cheaper than buying the battery-cage eggs at the grocery store. But eggs from happy chickens and eggs from chickens crammed into cages are two completely different things.)

6. Travel. Although we always try to travel as cheaply as possible (see my tips on this), it’s still a big expense— but one that we’re happy to invest in. From backpacking in Olympic National Forest to visiting family in Pennsylvania, I wouldn’t trade our travel experiences for any of the “normal” expenses that we’ve avoided. 


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Seven Expenses We Choose to Avoid

Homemade fondue dinner: best date EVER.

One day at work, Zach passed by a display in the electronics department featuring the newest toy: a set of drones that will battle each other mid-air. One of his co-workers asked if Zach was going to buy it, and when Zach said he couldn’t afford it, the co-worker laughed.

“What do you mean, you can’t afford it?” he asked. “Didn’t you guys just take a three-month vacation?” 

Zach answered, “The reason we could afford a three-month vacation is because we don’t buy random stuff like this!” 

Spending money is one of the most effective ways to show our priorities in life, and these priorities can be intentional or unintentional. Many people, if presented with a clear-cut choice, would take a vacation to Hawaii over a pile of random gadgets from Amazon— but in reality, they spend their money on the latter rather than the former.  A lot of people wish they had enough money to travel (or learn a new skill or just take some time off), but also sleepwalk through life without considering that the money they’re spending might be better placed somewhere else. 

One of Zach’s and my ongoing goals is to be intentional in the way we spend our money. That means spending less money in some areas and more money in others (see part two, coming soon!). I write this list not to brag, but to give an example of what we’ve chosen and how it’s working for us. For some people, these expenses are very important, and that’s fine— they’re just not important to us.

First of all, three expenses we’ve never chosen to have: 

1. Television service. If you’re about my age, this is probably a no-brainer for you— who watches regular TV anymore when there’s Netflix? News shows and sports games are online (not that I watched them to begin with), and the library has a massive bookshelf of interesting documentaries. 

2. Drinks out. I don’t drink to begin with, and Zach would rather mix his own drinks at home or buy a nice craft brew to enjoy while watching TV or reading books. He also makes coffee every morning before work so he’s not relying on Starbucks. 

3. A second car. I work from home (or at the historic district a mile from our house), so functioning on one car is quite easy for us. However, other friends in different situations have still made alternate transportation work for them.

And four expenses we’re choosing to cut out or minimize now:

4. “Just ‘cause” shopping trips. I almost never buy new clothes to begin with, but I had gotten into a habit of perusing thrift stores for clothes, household goods, and records. Although I’m not planning to cut these out entirely, I want to be more intentional about what I buy and focus on using and enjoying what I already have, rather than accumulating more.

5. Wi-Fi. We had gone Wi-Fi free before, but got Internet when Francis was living with us. Yes, watching Netflix was really nice, but Internet service is freakin’ expensive, so cutting this expense was an easy decision. That said, my job is completely online, so how do I manage? My smartphone (a basic Windows phone model) can function as a Wi-Fi hotspot, with 9G of high-speed data per month (check out “Internet Sharing” under “Settings”). This is plenty of data for surfing the web, working my online job, and watching the occasional YouTube video. I would miss Netflix, but our library owns all seven seasons of Parks and Rec, so the withdrawal hasn’t kicked in yet.

6. Pets. My neighbors tried to give me a free kitten, and although my heartstrings were tugged, I was firm in refusing. Pets aren’t really free— there’s the neutering/spaying, shots, vet visits, food, care if they get sick, etc. With our current priorities, it’s just not worth it to us. (That said, I fully support my friends getting pets so that I can visit them without the commitment!) And yes, chickens are sort of like pets, but they give you eggs and you can eat them when they get old, so they don’t count.

7. Eating out. We have a habit of going out for fast food once a week with our church friends, but these days we just pack ourselves sandwiches and order some fries, if anything. We had already started moving away from eating out in general since we started avoiding factory-farmed meat— vegetarian food at restaurants is generally either bland or grossly overpriced. (Cooking a nice dinner together, packing a picnic lunch, or making homemade ice cream are all great dates!)

Like I said, I don’t want this to come off as arrogance, only information. Now it’s your turn! What kind of “normal” expenses do you say “no” to in order to say “yes” to something more important to you?