Managing Food Waste

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It’s cold and soggy out tonight, despite it being nearly June.  We had a lovely, summer-like Memorial Day weekend, but the weather turned this morning, and it’s cold enough that the heat is back on.  Still, I got tons of time in the garden – more on that later – and the soaking rain means I don’t have to water plants any time soon.  I’m excited for the season – our garden is partially planted, and the CSA starts up next week.

Our life at Sithean creates a little too much waste, like most of us first-world folks.  Despite the fact that we use cloth napkins, try to buy in bulk and garden/have a CSA, the amount of waste still astounds me, and we’re working on it.  We can’t reduce in all ways, but we’re going to try.

One thing we do manage pretty well is food waste.  Our food-waste management program has 7 distinct areas, and together they serve to help minimize our load on the environment, at least in this one way.   None of them work perfectly, mind you, but it is something I feel pretty proud of generally.

  1. Kids create a lot of leftovers.  Eli and I are midway through Whole30, so we’re not eating a lot of the kids’ food. Under normal circumstances he finishes a lot of what they don’t eat.  I do occasionally, but significantly less.  This is simple and doesn’t require a farmlet or any special equipment.  He simply waits until they are done with breakfast or lunch before figuring out what he’s eating.  Dinner we eat together, but we still have been known to polish off what they don’t. 
  2. Compost.  We have 2 compost bins and we compost peelings, icky fruit, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags etc.  This eventually becomes soil for my garden.  Coffee grounds in the summer also directly fertilize my rose bushes about once a week – roses love leftover coffee.  I keep a small compost container on the kitchen counter, and we empty it as we fill it, every few days.  I know we’re eating healthiest when we have to empty it every day or so.
  3. Bunnies.  Apple cores, broccoli stems, zucchini ends, lettuce leaves and other vegetable pieces supplement their bunny pellets, hay and 2-carrot-a-day habit. In kale season, they can give my blanch-and-freeze process a run for it’s money in their kale consumption alone.
  4. Chickens.  Chickens are omnivores, and ours, at 3 months old, are just starting their scrap-consumption.  There are a few things that aren’t good for them, and I don’t ever feed them chicken (eww) but otherwise all the scraps go to them.  They love their extra treats, we love not tossing food, and in a few more months there will be eggs galore.
  5. Reuse.  Leftovers from dinner are often lunch.  Roasted chickens become soup.  Mushroom stumps and onion peels add flavor and complexity to the broth.  Parmesan rinds flavor soups and stews.  So many things can be transformed into another in the kitchen.  Fruits that are starting to get soft or slightly less appealing go into our smoothies.
  6. Refrigerator and pantry management.  This is the most labor-intensive one, and requires constant monitoring to ensure that nothing is going bad, and adaptation to recipes to ensure that things get used up on time.  It’s the one we are the least skilled at remembering to do, of course.
  7. Eating less and preserving more.  This too, is hard.  But it’s good for our health and our waistlines, as well as Mother Earth.  The less food we buy, the less there is to go to waste.  In the summer, when the CSA and the garden are producing food we preserve for the winter months.  I reuse my canning jars over and over, and every jar of salsa or sauce I make is one less I buy later.

I’ve still got so much more to do to reduce our footprint.  But food waste management is a skill I have been perfecting, and it’s not much effort.  Need help in managing your food waste?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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?

Sustainable Resources

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Even if you are a long ways away from any kind of ‘homesteader’ title, there’s nothing that will make you feel like one so much as battening down the hatches in advance of a ‘NorEaster.

We are due for a heavy load of snow and ice tonight and tomorrow, followed by frigid temperatures on Monday, so today was all about getting ready.  I paused on the pantry reduction to stock up a bit on food we could easily eat in the event of power loss, did a bunch of laundry, and made sure the bunnies had a nice clean hutch to hunker down in.  We are on Dog-and-Duckle-duty while the neighbors are away skiing, so we made sure everyone was fed and watered.  Once the chores were done I put a chicken in the oven with sweet potatoes, parsnips, onions and mushrooms, made some hard-boiled eggs,  put a bottle of white wine on to chill, and started a fire in the wood stove.

To say we are tucked up and cozy is an understatement.  This is about at good as it gets, life-wise.

My son, who decided he wanted some 1-1 Mom time instead of heading to his grandparents overnight yesterday to ice skate, has been my constant companion this weekend, while Eli wraps up his last few weeks at his day job, before returning to full-time art.  Connor was even patient when Mom, not expecting to have him with me this morning, didn’t cancel my hair appointment, and made him tag along.   My daughter came home this evening after a wonderful time in Maine, and now we are just, as my children say ‘chillaxing’.

I love this feeling of contentment.  I don’t always find time to have it – my list of ‘to-dos’ doesn’t ever seem to get smaller, and there are a lot of things I could probably be doing better, smarter or more/less of.  But I can feel those things tomorrow or later or whenever.  Tonight is for being satisfied -we are warm, dinner is waiting, and if anyone can be prepared, we are.  We don’t have a generator, but we do have plenty of wood, flashlights and candles.

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These days flashes of peaceful contentment comes almost surprisingly often.  I had a lot of it when I first moved, that feeling of being settled and home, of creating something for myself and the children.  And then it got lost for a while in worry and stress. But somehow it has come back, in no small part because of our artist-in-residence, but also because I am allowing myself to acknowledge all I am doing, with an absence of judgement about the things left undone.

It’s a trick I learned from distance running – to focus on the mileage behind you rather than what is left in front of you – it is that, more than anything, that allowed me to pile on the miles.  It’s knowing that despite imperfections, I am doing Ok at the Mom thing, the life thing.  I don’t know if it’s age, or simply that I have finally given myself permission to be happy, but it’s that sense of ‘Ok, here we are, this is now, and it’s good enough’.

Winter is time for planning, for cleaning and organizing, but most of all, for finding that breath between the moments.  Spring will come, and with it the mad rush to finish the garden, get seeds in the ground, a few more fruit trees planted, and if all goes well, transition a new batch of chickens to a brand-new coop with an enclosed run, along with some rain barrels for the garden.

We are slowly but surely headed towards a sustainable life.  It’s a process, not something that we’re getting to with any immediacy.

After dinner, the kids and Eli played a game while I washed the dishes and fed the wood stove.  Can we do this without grocery stores and regular income?  No. Not yet.

But we are on some level, infinitely self sustaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Home

january sunset

It’s late on a Friday afternoon, and we are heading into a cold January night.  As I wind down my workday, I started a fire in the wood stove, our secondary heat source.  Within the hour, the living room will be deliciously cozy.

It’s a simple dinner tonight – rice, broccoli, dumplings and Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, a house favorite, and easy to put together for me, since I’m a little tired and sleep deprived after a late night arrival home from my work trip. Fancy dinner it isn’t, but combined with a warm fire and a movie, it’s about as perfect as it can get, with one exception – we’re a week or so away from Eli being with us full time, and despite the homestretch, it’s starting to feel a bit too long.

Tomorrow there will be plenty of time for scratch cooking and chores.  This weekend I will finish putting away all the Christmas decorations and start preparing for the next phase of our winter  – decluttering and preparing for spring.

There’s always too much to do here at Sithean, but post-holiday winter has a particular form of silence and peace to it that allows me to take moments of rest and enjoy the life that I have built so far.  Most of my time is about rushing to do all the things that need and want to be done, but there’s something about a January weekend that allows me to take a breath.  It reminds me of that Edith Sitwell quote “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire; it is the time for home

fire in winter

And so it is.  No matter what happens during the week, with rare exception, Fridays are our nights at home.  They are family time, time to pour a glass of wine and relax, with the whole weekend ahead of us.  Far from a constraint, Fridays at home are cherished.

It’s an evening to feel lucky and blessed.  We have so much – warmth, good food, family, love – Fridays are the one evening when gratitude is not a struggle for me, it isn’t lost in the noise of the to-do list, or the things I wish I had accomplished.  This is the evening where everything, just as it is, is right with the world.

I wish you the happiest of Fridays.

Take Out at Home – A New Year’s Eve Feast

Proud Chefs

I’ve had a lot of time to sleep this past week, and it shows in how I feel.  I woke up to another gorgeous, sunny and cold day, fed the bunnies, greeted the ducks, who responded with quacks and by pooping on the porch- I really wish they would just say hello from the lawn – and sat down with coffee and a Green Monster Smoothie before I kicked off today’s activities.  Which involves both stacking firewood, and a lot of cooking.

This year, the kids voted again to be home, and for it to be just the four of us.  Their Dad has standing New Year’s Eve plans, and since I don’t care about ball drops or parties all that much, nor do I ever manage to stay awake until Midnight, staying in felt like a great decision.

Like most people, we have always gotten Chinese take out on NYE, but this year we are trying something a little different – we’re making our Asian feast.  Asian food is something I cook a lot of, and we have made most of the items on the list before.   While I expect to do most of the cooking, this is an all-in family affair for us.  Of necessity, planning started a few days earlier, and I started chopping and prepping early in the day.

Here’s our menu:

Beef satay  – a new recipe for us
Paleo scallion pancakes 
Dumplings – while I do often make them from scratch, I can buy equally good ones at HMart, our local Asian grocery store.  So I did.  I’ll post my recipe in a future blog entry.
General Tso’s Chicken
White Rice
Radish Kimchi
Seaweed Salad

Those last twoitems were bought prepared at HMart as well, but Kimchi is on my list of things to learn to make.  Radish Kimchi is typically not spicy, and even the kids really enjoy it.  I like the spicy cabbage version, but we don’t consume enough of it to justify me making any just yet.  Eli once made me Kimchi Pancakes, and while we have plenty on this menu, I need to find a way to work those in again soon.

The symbolism behind our dinner is one of prosperity, celebrating the dawn of another year with a feast full of choices about what to put on our plates. Prosperity means something different to everyone, but for me, it’s not just a monetary thing – it means that we have opportunities to do and  be the things we value most.  Since my belief around what I put into my body, and who and what I surround myself with, has a direct outcome on my well-being, a feast that has both healthy and rich choices is the right balance for luck and good outcomes into the new year.

If Asian food for dinner isn’t your bag, consider trying a menu from Haphazard Homemaker’s 13 Lucky Foods blog post, a nifty collection of traditions from around the world.

This morning, I started with the marinade for the Satay.  The only recipe modification I made is that I used ginger garlic paste instead of dicing ginger and garlic – it’s my little cheat, and it smells soooooo good.

 

I had forgotten to thaw the chicken, so I decided to take an hour off from cooking and enjoy being alone in the house for a bit.  I puttered around a little, did some laundry, and then got back to the kitchen.  Next up was the Paleo Scallion Pancakes.  One thing you will notice if you eat a lot of paleo is the different kinds of flours involved.  This recipe is made with Cassava and Arrowroot flours, and was my first time using either.  I found that I couldn’t roll these quite as thin as regular flour scallion pancakes, and I needed a bit more boiling water to make a good dough (probably 1/3 cup extra) than the recipe, but otherwise it went just like the instructions.

Serve both the scallion pancakes with this dipping sauce.  The great thing about this is that the leftover sauce becomes stir fry sauce:

1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup rice wine (mirin)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon grated ginger + 2 cloves garlic minced, or 2 tablespoons ginger garlic paste
3/4 cup chopped scallions
1 tablespoon sugar

Mix, let stand for 30 minutes, and serve

While I waited for the chicken to thaw enough to cut – I could have thawed it quicker, but I was in no hurry today, New Year’s Eve cooking should be the antithesis of stressful kitchen time, and today definitely fit the bill I prepped the rice cooker and started rolling the pancakes.  Then the kiddos took over, and became master scallion pancake rollers.

The scallion pancakes were amazing.  The chicken was a little salty – I would cut down the soy sauce next time, and same for the satay, but everything was completely delicious.

Happy New Year from our home to yours.

 

How to Simplify Your Life Part 1

House with new roof

 

I woke up this morning to cold again, after several days of warmer, rainy temperatures.  It’s almost 2019. Almost time to make resolutions and take down the tree, but not quite.  I can sit and enjoy the Christmas lights before anyone awakens and take nothing but pleasure from it – there’s nothing left to wrap or do for this year, now the lights and decorations exist purely for my enjoyment for a few more days.

The first pot of turkey broth for soup is in the crock pot – our Christmas turkey, at 23 pounds, will make a lot of soup, so I took the carcass apart, froze some, and started broth from the rest.  Homemade turkey soup, like my chicken soup, is simple and easy – the turkey parts, skin and all, go into a crock pot with bay leaves, herbs de provence, tarragon, and a generous dollop of cider vinegar, and cook for the better part of a day.  Yes, you can do this in an instant pot in just a few minutes, but I prefer mine to have the added benefits of being set to ‘ignore’ for hours at a time combined with the scent of it wafting through the house.

Last night Eli and I celebrated our anniversary with an evening out in Boston, a rarity for us, seeing Ivan Amodei’s Secrets and Illusions – the last magic show either of us had seen up close was in childhood and I admit, it was initially not my first choice of shows, but it was a lot of fun and worth every penny, followed by dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant nearby.  If you haven’t tried Ethiopian food, I highly recommend it.  The base of everything is served on a pancake called Injera, made with Teff flour, and it is both base, utensil and a big component of dinner all in one.  I have’t tried to make Ethiopian at home, but it is on my 2019 list of to-dos.

New Year’s day is the day my family makes  their list of ‘things we want to do in the new year’.   Our first year here at Sithean, the list included such things as ‘meet the neighbors’ an ‘go to a water park’.  We all contribute, and check back to the list periodically to make sure that we are still thinking about our goals as we go about our lives.  This year my contributions to the list will involve,  despite several trips planned and the fact that I travel regularly for work, a lot more time at home, decluttering, cooking in, and generally simplifying our lives.

Voluntary Simplicity is a thing.  It basically involves downscaling your life so that you do, have and buy less.  I lived a fairly simple life, marching towards mortgage freedom and early retirement, until my divorce several years ago.  To say things went haywire is an understatement.  I dropped 25 pounds in a short time, requiring an entire reboot of my wardrobe (ok, I kind of enjoyed that part) while having to completely refurnish my new living quarters, down to the forks and plates.

Then I moved to Sithean, and in the first year alone had huge outlays for appliances – all of which died within the first 2 months, gasping their last in rapid succession, except the washing machine, which stubbornly hangs on – and major repairs, including the infamous 50-foot pine tree that fell on the roof.  Add to that some large medical bills, and it took me a while to swim back to my comfort zone.

Then I stopped working for 7 months.  While that was in part my choice, it was also expensive.  I’m grateful in retrospect though – 7 months of being a full time Mom was one of the best experiences I have ever had.

But needless to say, it’s been an eventful, and expensive, several years.  That isn’t to say that some of those expenses haven’t been pleasurable – we take our relatively inexpensive trip to New Hampshire every year, no matter what, and the makings of the new 40×18′ potager garden was all for me.  Adding Eli to the household requires a second  family-sized car, and our choosing to have a small wedding next summer isn’t without cost.  And so on.  But all things considered, 2019 is the year we start to get back to basics – and simplicity is one of those things.

Simplicity needs to happen in increments to make it sustainable.  Try to do everything at once, and like most lifestyle changes, it won’t stick.  Even for me, as part of my natural state, phasing is important.  So I started with defining 4 things I could do almost immediately to start us down the right path.

The first step towards simplicity here at Sithean revolves around making a menu.  While a menu can be veered from – and should, if there are leftovers to be eaten up – it’s a guide and a help.  I find if I know what I’m going to eat for dinner, my desire to go out drops down significantly.   I tend to plan about a week out, revising as I go.  Over the coming week turkey soup, made from leftover Christmas turkey features heavily, as does our homemade Asian feast planned for New Year’s Eve.

While I do have a bit of grocery shopping that must be done – milk, eggs, snacks for the kids lunches – the second component of January simplicity is starting to eat down the pantry.   I view a stuffed pantry and freezer as an emergency fund you can eat.  But every year or two, it’s time to eat it down and restock, using creativity to ensure that we have healthy, tasty meals.  For a month or two, the grocery bill drastically drops, and then of course, it typically goes up again, but I am careful not to try to restock everything at once.  And I know we’re done when there is literally nothing that any of us want to eat any longer.  Eating the pantry down can be work, but it can also be an all-family challenge.  Involve the kids to get ideas.  True, you might end up eating spaghetti tacos, but you also might find yourself with a new family favorite.

Thing three is finding cheap cool stuff to do around you for the next few months.  There is always, always free stuff to do, be it a trip to the library or your local all-volunteer winter nature hike.

And that fourth?  It’s the decluttering part – and the first step is the room that will be Eli’s studio, which requires us to declutter other parts of the house as we move things around to make space.  While decluttering can seem overwhelming, the result is always pleasurable, with clean open space as a result.

A key thing I have learned about simplicity is that it isn’t necessarily simple.  Menu planning takes time.  If you are intent on ensuring that you don’t have to shop for lots of ingredients while you eat down the pantry, it takes creativity as well.  And the thing that creativity requires most is time and space to think, to consider your options and alternatives you might not have considered.  So the critical item to start down the road of voluntary simplicity is to give yourself some breathing room to mull over how you want to handle things.

As we pare down our lives over the coming year, I look forward to sharing how it’s going.

What are your plans for 2019?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having Enough

I really love Christmas, but even better than that, I love the day after.  It’s the perfect day – no expectations, the fridge is stuffed with leftovers, so no pressure to cook – anything really – and no one sees a need to change out of pajamas.  There’s toys to play with for the kids, a fire in the woodstove, and other than laundry, dishes, and a bit of cleanup here and there, it’s the best do-nothing day of the year.

Day after Christmas.jpg

So of course, when the furnace stopped working that morning due to a burned-out igniter switch, we all huddled up in the living room near the fire, made a phone call, and kept doing the large amounts of nothing we had previously been up to.  My woodstove heats exactly 1 room – the living room – but that was enough to keep us warm until Brad, the guy who has kept oil heaters going for most of my homeowning life in multiple houses, could fix it in the early evening.

It isn’t that there weren’t chores to do, emails to be answered, and projects in need of starting.  In fact, I did make some phone calls around the car we are buying, and write out some bills, but that was between long stretches of relaxation.  Doing the things is necessary and important.  It’s just that after the production of a large turkey dinner and a lovely Christmas overall,  doing the nothing is equally important.  As a very wise man once said, we are human beings, not human doings.

The next day I did do some more traditionally post-Christmas things, such as hitting a bunch of clearance sales for kid clothes – my kids are growing like weeds, and everything they own is starting to show wrist and ankle bones more regularly than one typically wants to in the dead of winter.  I also got them next year’s Christmas Eve pajamas and put them away – I don’t have a big budget for pre-buying Christmas gifts right now, but I do take advantage of deals when I can.  Same for buying things in advance – when one of them likes an item of clothing on sale, I might get it in multiple sizes so that we can spend less money and time later on.  And I worked on the car purchase Eli and I are taking on, as he goes from city to Sithean-dweller, and starts carting around various smallish people here, starting in just a few weeks.

But even though we’re in a place of a few big purchases and growing kids, and our Christmas was certainly not a modicum of restraint, I find myself wanting less and less as the years and months tick by.  I like to go out but almost always would rather eat at home.  I don’t need more clothes or shoes, even though i like them.  What I need is family and friends, financial security, and time to enjoy our lives.  Those are not things that I can buy.  I have enough things – actually, a few too many.  The things I don’t have enough of require me to stop and think through how our lives could change to create more of them – more time for the simpler joys that bring me so much more pleasure than a new pair of shoes.

2019 is going to be a year of a few big expenses- a small wedding this August, a newer car for Eli, continued work with the architect, and a few trips.  But after we get through these items, and in and around them,  my plan is to decrease our standard of living, not increase it.  My plan for next year is to maximize our time outside, and really put effort into simplifying, decluttering, gardening and taking time to breathe.

We have enough, and that’s a pretty good feeling.  Connor tree farm.jpg  How about you?