How to Simplify Your Life – Stocking (and De-Stocking) the Pantry

big churn

Today,  I wanted nothing so badly as to just have a very large, calorie-intensive italian meal delivered to me.  Whatever it was, it needed to involve lots of food slathered in sauce and ricotta cheese.  What can I say – it’s cold outside, and  I wanted Eggplant Rollatini and a lot of things to go with it.  I was hungry, more than a little, I certainly didn’t feel like cooking dinner, and I definitely wasn’t interested in anything I had in the house.

Even with my near-limitless pantry options, I get bored.  And unmotivated.

So when I pulled some meatballs out of the freezer, added them to tomato soup, and then tossed in some chopped, frozen kale, and added a cheese quesadilla (melt some cheese on a tortilla, fold, eat)  I felt virtuous on a couple levels.  First, because I really don’t need the calories from a large Italian dinner right at this moment – this was a loose take on it without the guilt.  But secondly, because this is food I have already bought and paid for.  Part of my effort to eat down the pantry over the next few months is pure housekeeping.  But there’s another, no less important part of this – to offset the myriad expenses that have popped up as Eli and I combine lives with some budget sanity.  Avoiding take out for one night will hardly offset the money we just put into a slightly used Nissan Pathfinder, or cover the cost of a new chicken coop with a predator-proof enclosed run, but I truly believe that attention to the small leaks of money is just as important as the big successes.

That doesn’t mean we never intend to eat out or pick up ready-made food again.  Just this weekend Connor and I ordered Chinese food, because that was what he wanted more than anything for our special weekend.  And I fully believe in prepared food -sometimes from the store, but often from my own freezer, like the meatballs in my soup.  But part of simplifying your life is learning to be content with what you have.  And today, that contentment consists of not having to drive to pick up food when there is plenty available right here.

I believe strongly in having a full pantry for a number of reasons.  They are, in relative order of importance:

  1. It is an emergency fund you can eat.  In times where paychecks might be spotty or income inconsistent, even the most well-prepared of us will want to tighten the belt.  A full pantry is a buffer against times of having less
  2. It offers options to the perennial question of ‘what’s for dinner?’
  3. If stocked properly and over time, it’s variety of the inexpensive sort – out of my pantry I can whip up Thai, Indian and lots of yummy favorites, like my Simple Lentil Sausage Soup

Stocking the pantry is simple.  Focusing on the things you eat, buy them at the most affordable points.  Some foods go on sale cyclically, such as baking supplies in November and December.  Others you have to watch sale flyers for.  Some things, like my favorite wine, that also happens to sell for $6.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s, I buy half a case or a full case at a time – not just for the case discount, but because I am not the only one that likes it, and it sells out quickly.

By the way, a great skill to cultivate in life is to like the cheap wine just as much as the expensive stuff.  Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad, although you may have to taste a few bad ones to encounter something you like.   I know a lot of people who only like ‘good wine’ and while I do too, I cheerfully enjoy the not-so-fancy too.  Which leaves a lot more options open to me, and is a lot less painful, budget-wise.  

When pasta goes on sale for 69 cents a box, I might buy 10 boxes.  And then not buy any more for a while.

I admit, I’m lazy about it.  I’m imperfect about watching sales, and sometimes I end up paying more for bulk than I would individually – I try to be careful, but it does happen.  I have also learned that you will never get the best price in one place – one of the grocery stores I tend to find the most expensive has the best loss leaders around.  So long as I stick with the sales, I do very well there.

I also strongly advocate periodically eating through what you have in your pantry and freezer before restocking.  It will force you to be creative after the first week or so, but it will also be kind of…fun?  I found some Stone Crab meat in my freezer that I bought a month or so ago and promptly forgot about.  Apparently we’re having crab cakes pretty soon.  Eating down your food supply gives you a chance to clean the fridge, the freezer, the cabinets, as well as making sure the investment you have made with your wallet in your cabinets doesn’t go to waste.

What do you keep in your pantry, and have you ever skipped the grocery store to clean it out?

Garden Dreams Part 4

I had hoped this would be my final installment of my series on building a garden, but of course it isn’t.  Melissa and I have been cranking on the fence, and making great progress, but the magnitude of this project, and our mutual schedules mean we need more time.   The funny thing is that it’s totally ok.  I want to be done, and the plants need to go in the ground, but right now we are both so busy that being stressed about what isn’t done isn’t going to do anything but steal joy away from what we have accomplished, which is a ton.  All of the 8′ fence sections are built, and we have 5 more and a gate to put on.

The garden ended up being 40’x18′, smaller than originally planned, but not by much.
Darn that fence is level

Because I have some work travel coming up, and some of the plants were no longer thriving in their temporary pots, today we stopped construction, and I went to work on building some of the brick beds and planted.   Melissa went off to do some weeding and I immersed myself in measuring, bringing wheelbarrows full of bricks over, and planting.  After a few hours, I had some help from Sithean’s newest resident, H, an Environmental Studies intern staying with us for the summer so she can be close to her summer internship.  She didn’t have to like gardening, or volunteer to help, but both happened.

I built 2 5×5 garden beds today.  On 3 sides are 20″ paths, which will eventually be covered in mulch.  On the fourth side, at the front of the garden, the path is closer to 3′ wide to accomodate Hollyhocks and other fence-climbing plants.  The measuring tape is my best friend these days, keeping my rows of bricks straight and with even distances.

Each bed will eventually be framed internally into smaller squares, but for this year, putting the larger beds in place is what can get done.  Once they were framed out on 3 sides, I added about 3″ of compost on top of the dirt.

5x5 bed

Then we planted.  Today, dill, basil, pickling cucumbers, ‘Livingston’s Best’ tomatoes and begonias went into the beds.

I don’t know that I would have chosen to plant as I build, but I’m still pretty satisfied with the result.

First Planted Beds

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Cold Spring Nights

The weather here at Sithean continues to veer between summer-like warmth and chilly enough to light a fire in the wood stove.  Once, even, cold enough to turn on the heat, and usually I hold the line after May 1st pretty hard.  Sithean has oil heat, which isn’t cheap on the best of days.  Still, it’s starting to warm up generally, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom.  The asparagus bed started producing about 2 weeks ago, and will go another 3-4 weeks.  I missed a few to bolting, but there’s still plenty for eating.

For most people, May probably doesn’t seem like a great time to recommend roasted vegetables.  But it’s an odd time for eating locally, barring making a few really delicious asparagus frittatas (asparagus, eggs, cheese, potatoes for the crust if you want one) from our eggs, and the occasional lettuce wraps. Farmers markets and CSAs haven’t started up yet, I’m basically out of everything I preserved last year, and it’s grocery store bounty until at least June 1.

I take advantage of the cooler nights to fill the freezer – come August when we go on vacation, I’ll take the meatballs I made tonight and froze, a couple pounds of pasta, and we’ll eat it for dinner our first night away with garlic bread and a salad – a tradition we have not broken in at least a decade.  I’ll be making Falafel for the freezer this week too, as well as Bulgogi , a house favorite, especially on the grill.  Food prep means there’s always something here to eat if I do it right, so no one (me) has to capitulate to the Takeout Gods.

There’s a few leftovers from my fall crops lying around too – a couple winter squashes that made it this far, and the last of the half-bushel of sweet potatoes to supplement what we are buying.  The squashes will be cooked down and the puree saved for soup, but the sweet potatoes are inevitably roasted.

I love sweet potatoes, and while there are lots of ways to prepare them, roasted with various spice coatings is my favorite.  It’s also the quickest and the simplest.  I keep spice mixtures on hand to toss them in, but salt, pepper and olive oil also works.

Roasting sweet potatoes is simple – preheat oven to 375 degrees, oil a pan, peel and slice the sweet potatoes into half moons or wedges, sprinkle salt, pepper, your favorite spice mixture and drizzle olive oil on top.  Bake until soft with crispy edges, 25 minutes or so.

My current favorite is Harissa seasonings, a mix of chili peppers and paprika.  I like the smokey flavor it adds.  I use Spice Road brand, but any will do.

Harissa_Silk Road

 

Harissa sweet potatoes.jpg

Another favorite here is Tumeric-roasted cauliflower.  When organic cauliflower goes on sale I always pick up a couple heads.  Cut the florets from the head (the bunnies get to eat the leftovers), put them in an oiled pan, sprinkle with salt, a generous amount of tumeric, and olive oil over the top.  Roast until tender, 45-50 minutes.

The great part of roasted veggies – aside from healthy, cheap and tasty –  is that the leftovers can be warmed in the oven repeatedly with no loss of taste or texture.

If you can’t have a warm spring night, at least you can have a warm spring meal.

How (Not) to be a Homesteader

There’s that moment every morning here, when the kids are at school, and all the animals are fed and both they and the plants are watered when I sit down to my computer to get to work, and I take a breath.  Everyone’s taken care of for the moment.  There are always more chores, but they can wait until the income-producing work is done.

Life at Sithean might be called homesteading, if one stretched every definition of the word to transparent thinness like one of those giant latex bubbles that are sold on TV.  I view homesteading as increasing self-sufficiency.  I’d like that, but I haven’t noticed my trips to the grocery store dropping off, so I’m reluctant to evaluate it that way.  It probably couldn’t be considered a farm, although I do grow things in volume.  What it really should be considered is a teensy, tiny farmlet-style side hustle that keeps me in asparagus, salsa, pesto and eggs.

omelet

Which is not to say that’s the limit of it, or that I won’t become more self-sufficient here over time — definitely a goal, but for now realistically, it’s not a big money-saver to live here. Quite the opposite, most of the time.  It is though, an investment in the future.    Not just mine, but a protection of sorts for my children, a place of abundance in a rapidly changing world.  It’s a sanctuary, but a connected one.

In addition to the upcoming garden expansion, this year I added a cold-hardy cherry tree, bush apricots, blueberries and lots of perennial herbs.  Few of them will produce this year, and I still haven’t figured out where to put pear trees and cranberry bushes, but in the long haul, my goal is to grow and produce at least a large chunk of what fruit and vegetables we eat, supplemented by our local farm share.   To live a life where the apples we eat come from our trees, where the house is on route to paid for, and yet be within just a few miles of expansive civilization (read: Sushi and Thai food) is a gift.

As I read over blogs and books on sustainable living though, I find very few homesteader-types that seem like me.  I have not given up paid employment to go back to the land.  I still want to see Santorini someday.  I’d love to be off the grid, but every time I flick on a light I am grateful for it.  I am not planning for end times, although I am worried about the effects of climate change, effects I already see here, as spring comes later and summer lasts longer every year.  For me, this is a slow-burn process.

I was thinking about it as I was planting and weeding this week.  I’m not any of the things a typical homesteader might be.  I’m a single mom, a liberal who is a huge fan of the social safety net and more than willing to pay taxes for the betterment of society generally.  I’m not associated with any faith.  I drive more than I’d like to, I’m on planes a bunch, I color my hair, paint my toes, and I’m not giving up shaving any time soon.

In short, I don’t fit the profile of the back to the land movement.   I have no environmental moral authority, and I’m hardly an expert on much, except the stuff that I am.

For a long time, I assumed that due to this lack of street cred, I wasn’t the right person to write about the experiences of farmlet life.  But it finally occurred to me that I have a valuable perspective after another conversation with someone, who, like me, was an apologist for having 1.57 feet in modern society and the other .43 in a place not dissimilar from mine – that there are a lot of us.  People who want to live better and more lightly on the earth, but also cave to modern conveniences.  I’m doing things imperfectly, and learning as I go along, and figuring out what works for us.

One of the greatest gifts one can give oneself is acceptance.  An unexpected byproduct of me saying to myself, ‘hey self, you don’t have to be perfect at this to have something to offer’ is that the ways in which I had offerings expanded dramatically.  And the reception to those offerings has been equally dramatic.  I’m no longer an apologist for my life, which is something of a relief.   I may not get it right, or achieve a higher moral authority, but there’s a lot going on here that is worth a share.

 

Sweat Equity, Leaning In, and Balance

The other day my best friend and I were talking about some things, and she gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  ‘Everything in your life, you put sweat equity into.  Fitness, your house, your garden, even cooking almost everything from scratch.  I’m not going to grow a tomato from seed, I’m going to buy it.  But you, at your core, are about the time and effort you put into things, that’s what you value.”

There was more, of course, but it hit me square between the eyes, because it was so true – everything in my life is work, and that often feels overwhelming.  But much of it is work I choose – I prefer the tomatoes I grow.  I like the feeling of building, creating and improving.  I don’t do everything myself, far from it, and I get lots of help.  But at the end of the day, I choose to make muffins and cookies from scratch, I choose to grow food, raise chickens, run 10 miles in a single morning and so on.  Yes, they are all work, and no, I don’t have to do any of them.  The reality is that I like to do all of them.  Maybe not all of them at once, which is what happens in the spring when it’s a mad rush to get the yard cleaned up, the garden ready, take care of baby animals and still be a mother and meet the demands of my career, not to mention the regular life stuff, such as grocery shopping, laundry, and dishes.  And sleep?

To me, the effort I put into things is as important as the end result.  I like to go out to eat, but the food I make at home is just as good, if not better in many cases.  It’s gratifying to sit down to falafel or Pad Thai or even simple spaghetti and meatballs you have made yourself, and cooking is relaxing, once you start.

There’s lots of quotes about the journey vs. the destination one can throw out, but I found that learning to enjoy the process was not always simple. Some things, like cooking and weeding, I just enjoy.   Others, like yard cleanup, spackling, or long runs, I merely tolerated – necessity, but not things to be enjoyed.

That is, until I started to realize just how good it felt to finish a project and realize I was the deciding factor in how well and how quickly it was done.  There’s a zen in creating, and accomplishing, even when it’s not comfortable.  A 10-mile run for me may never feel easy, but it always feels good, if that makes sense.  The idea that you can choose what feels like work was fairly revolutionary for me, and was the difference between barely finishing a 5k and my first half marathon. If I can gift anything to my kids, it’s not to take as long to figure that out as I did.

No one has to choose to build a 48′ garden or spend their Sundays on long runs, and you definitely can buy great falafel, although if you want to try it, here’s an easy, delicious recipe.  Most of us have to balance whether we want to spend time or money on something, and I won’t lie that I frequently come down on the spend side.  But most of the time it’s my time and effort, at least in part, that makes my life what it is.

But.  It’s also exhausting at times.  I’m not going to lie to you.

When I recently took almost 5 months off from work, unpaid, supplemented with a bit of consulting work on the side, a lot of people were surprised.  I was too.  After years and years of juggling parenthood and a demanding career, travel, not the glamorous kind, the kind where you get home at 2 am and are up at 5:45 again to make the kids breakfast, an old house, a huge yard and lots of moves, and I was just….done.  I had Leaned In with dedication.  But I was tired I would sometimes walk around the house on weekends, going in and out of rooms and not know what to do.

Done enough to take savings and investments and an exit package and walk away, without certainty about what would happen next.

And here’s what did happen: I slept.  I did house projects.  I spent time with friends and family.  I made my kids blueberry muffins in the morning instead of Rice Krispies.   I went to yoga when I normally would have been in meetings.  I trained for a road race.  I started seedlings.

Sometimes I did…absolutely nothing worth mentioning.

I’m the better for it.  I don’t think everyone should quit their jobs, of course not.  And I still think that lots of things are better if I put effort into them, most things.  I would always rather make things from scratch.  And eventually of course, it was time to pick up the strings of my career and go back to work.  And what do you know, I was energized and motivated in a way that I haven’t been in years, and it was noticed.

I regret nothing.  Not a dime of income lost.  Not a meeting missed.  Not that I didn’t get the kitchen painted.   And now it’s spring again – busy season here at my tiny little farmlet, and maybe I have even more to do than ever before.  But never again will I sign up for a life where I can’t take a random Monday to paint pottery with my kids, or where I miss our baby ducks first swim in the pond.   The name of the game now is balance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Things

I always know it’s spring, even if the weather doesn’t agree, because it’s baby season.  Not the human kind, those with very tiny feathers.

Last year was the first co-chickening endeavor with my neighbors.  We lost a lot of them though – our chickens range freely, and hawks and coyotes are a perpetual risk.  Just last night we lost Sweet Pea, our last Buff Orpington chicken.

Melissa, my neighbor, and I agreed that it was time to try a rooster again, but because we need to quickly augment a flock that is now down to 6 chickens, this morning we went to get 8 new baby chicks.  It takes more than 10 to keep both houses in daily eggs, and we can go up to 18 residents in the coop.

We somehow came home with 4 baby ducks as well, which has been my daughter’s dream for almost a year.  The ducks will live with the chickens in their coop when they are older, but for now, 2 shaving-filled plastic bins fill my house, and little shaving droppings are everywhere, no matter how much I clean up after them.

I wouldn’t trade it though, I adore chickens, and I think the ducks may be even more fun.

Chickens can have overhead – feed, heat lamps and heated waterers in the winter, and shavings for the coop.  But in comparison to their willingness to consume most of the leftover food in the house, as well as the fact that they lay an egg a day each, eat ticks with abandon, and their waste fortifies the soil, the overhead is worth it.  I never feel like we waste food here, because adult chickens will eat everything from week-old macaroni and cheese that got lost in the back of the fridge to the wilted lettuce from yesterday’s salad.

All they ask in return is a safe place to sleep, food and water.

So back to babies.  Those tiny little balls of fluff grow fast, but there’s nothing like a newly hatched chick nestled asleep in your hand to make you appreciate life.  And chicks are a great life lesson in responsibility for kids.

But most of all to me, chicks are a tiny – literal and figurative – sign of spring.  Spring is the season for babies in nature, of starting over, of renewal.  And most of all, of the human capacity for love.

Happy spring from my home to yours.