Friday, March 27, 2009

DIY Rain Barrels: Harvesting the Sky

Both of my boys have passed out; Jules on the couch with Bell Bell squarely on his chest, Spicy Barracuda snuggled in bed with Guadie guarding his feet. This leaves me awake to listening to the fire dwindle down and Jules' heavy breathing. I like the stillness of the nights especially with the rain falling outside. Our rain barrels have filled much faster than anticipated and have increased from two to four with another couple coming as tax returns are deposited.

The increase of our rain barrels required a trip to the hardware store, some discussion among various male employees about the right way to secure specific things (thank you Ron, Scott, and Val), and me dutifully pushing the cart because I'm way out of my element.

The hooking up of our rain barrels and outfitting them to work properly was all Jules. He was amazing! I can use the truck to acquire them from the industrial supplier, I can haul them home and wash them out, and then I can stand back and realize I'm clueless on how to make the rest of it work. Jules tried to show me plans. He tried to explain. But, it wasn't until we had all the pieces home and he was actually outfitting the first barrel that I really was able to figure out what all was going on. Now that the process has been repeated four separate times, I get it quite well and could probably do one myself. So here goes with me trying to explain...

Materials for 1 Barrel
1 3/4 inch hose bib (1/4 turn)
1 1/2 inch coupling 2 inch extension
1 package rigid sealing lock nuts (found in electrical conduit section)
1 roll 1/2 inch Teflon tape (520 inches)
2 2 inch ABS Male adapters with Lock Nut
1 2 inch ABS pipe (the really long one)
2 2 inch ABS pipe elbows (90 degrees)
1 can ABS cement
1 downspout adapter
1 flexible downspout
1 cheapo plastic garden pot with 9 inch diameter
1 roll of screen (like for a screen door)
9 1/2 inch screws
6-8 miscellaneous screws
large rubber band

Tools
Power drill with 1/2 inch drill bit
adjustable diameter wrench
Dremel (so helpful, but not imperative)
X-acto knife
Jig Saw
hose
Spoon
screwdriver
black Sharpie marker
hack saw

Drill multiple small holes into the base and 2 inches up the sides of the 9 inch garden pot. This will allow for the water to freely enter the rain barrel, but for junk from the gutters and mosquitoes to be screened out. Unroll the screen and cut two sections 6 inches high by 18 inches wide. Make an X with the screen over the opening of the pot. Press it down into the pot so that the base and side holes are completely covered (and in some places overlapped) with the screen. Wrap the screen around the lip of the pot using a spoon handle to push it underneath. Have another set of hands screw the 9 1/2 inch screws around the edges, working as you go, to secure the screen inside the pot. This pot will sit in the hole you are going to drill into the top of the rain barrels, and hold down the newly rerouted downspout.

In order for water to enter the rain barrels, you need to cut a sizable hole in the top. The most important thing to remember when cutting the holes into the barrels is that you are dealing with water. This means the seals need to be tight and in order for that to be the case, the holes need to have smooth edges that are just barely big enough. Remember, you can always remove a little more plastic, but you can never put the plastic back after you've cut too much.

Find an item in your house that has a 9 inch diameter. It can be the lid to a standard juice pitcher (that's what we used), a bowl, a jar, it doesn't matter as long as the diameter of the lid is 9 inches. Trace the outline of this lid onto the center of the rain barrel. Use the 1/2 inch drill bit to drill three successive holes about 1 millimeter from the the traced line. This will allow you a starting place to begin using the jig saw to roughly cut out the hole. Come as close to the line as you feel comfortable without going over it. Once the hole is cut, use the X-acto knife to scrape any squiggly edges of plastic. If you don't own a Dremel, see if your neighbor (father, brother, sister, mother, mail man, coworker, anyone you can think of) does. Though the Dremel is not so imperative you should go buy one solely for this project, it is so helpful. Use the Dremel to router away the last remaining plastic up to the line, leaving a smooth buffed edge. At this point, put the screened pot into the hole to check that it fits. The lip of the pot should hang over the edge enough to keep it securely fastened and prevent mosquitoes from entering.

Remove the pot from the hole and set it aside. Now that you have been sure it fits, you won't need it again until the end. Drill a hole 1/2 inch in diameter about 4-6 inches from the bottom of the barrel, making sure to X-acto and Dremel the edges of the hole. Using the 1/2 inch diameter, two inch long coupling extension and the package of rigid sealing lock nuts (they look like lock washers with a nice rubber gasket) you will next create the spout of your barrel. The basic idea is that you screw the extension into the hole sandwiching the barrel with the washers on either side. This is significantly easier said than done! If you know someone with freakishly long arms (Jules is 6'4" tall and fits this description) make them some cookies and recruit them for this mission! In all honesty, this process caused much cursing from Jules and a lot of frustration. In the end the first barrel was the only one we used the extra rubber gasket for. The later barrels still have the interior washer, but no rubber gasket. This removal increased the threadability so that Jules could really get the washer on. If you are careful with your seals, the double washer is a bit excessive for all the frustration it causes.

Whether you decide to sandwich the washers or not, here is the process for the spout. Place rigid sealing lock nut onto the coupling making sure the blue washer is facing the threads. Next wrap the threads with an ample amount of Teflon tape. Don't be stingy with this stuff, it is amazing! Using some serious brute strength screw the tape covered threads of the coupling into the barrel until you start to smuch the rubber gasket. This should be a very tight fit. If it isn't the pressure from the full barrel of water will cause a leaky spout and much annoyance later. If you are feeling gung ho and really up for a challenge, have your freakishly-long-armed friend use a wrench to fix the other rigid sealing lock washer (rubber gasket facing the barrel) to the other side of the coupling on the inside of the barrel. This is done by tipping the barrel over and having the person lay on the side, straining to reach the spout and fix the coupling. This is by far the hardest part of the process.

At this point your barrel is almost complete. The only other task is to complete the overflow valve. We had no idea how fast our barrels were going to fill up. I honestly thought the overflow valve a bit superfluous, but now see its importance. Without this valve, once your barrel fills, the water would begin back up and soon flood from any place possible. Not good. The overflow is used to direct excess water away from the foundation of your house and into a safe runoff area. The other benefit of the overflow valve is to fill other barrels. The overflow valve connects very easily into another barrel causing them to fill in succession after the initial barrel reaches maximum capacity. For anyone living somewhere with even moderate rain this is a great way to increase the amount of money saved on irrigating a garden. In our city, we also receive a generous deduction in our sewer bill with every downspout we detach into a rain barrel set up. At any rate, the overflow is necessary whether to fill another barrel, or merely to save you from flooding.

To create the overflow you will need to find the center line of your rain barrel. On most this is a simple process of finding the molding lines which run right across the top. Follow these lines down about 4 inches from the top of the barrel and trace the diameter of the ABS pipe on the side of the barrel, centered around the mold line. Use the 1/2 inch drill bit to drill a couple of successive holes in the plastic as done previously to begin jig sawing a hole. After the hole has been cut with the jig saw be sure to X-acto cut and Dremel the edges for a secure seal.

With the hole in the top and now a hole in the side, you can adequately rinse out your barrels. This is important not only for the smell (ours were used and thus had quite a pungent aroma within them) but also to remove all the pieces of plastic which have been cut, Dremeled, and X-actoed into squiggly little bits. These are not things you want clogging up the spigot of your barrel when it is full of 35+ gallons of very cold rain water. So remove both caps from the top of the barrel and take a hose to the inside. It took about three different rinsings and shakings for the barrel to really be rid of all plastic and smelly remnants. Though they look big the barrels are very, very light. They are merely bulky. However, you will most likely get a bit damp and dirty doing this so keep that in mind.

The overflow valve is a very simple attachment consisting of two Male ABS adapters with lock nuts. The adapters sandwich to either side of the rain barrel and create a place for a piece of ABS pipe to securely fit and maintain a nice seal. The adapters should have a white washer inside of them which also helps form the seal. When coupled with Teflon tape and a liberal slathering of ABS Cement, the entire connection is quite watertight. If you are wanting to hook up successive barrels, the overflow would fit directly into another male adapter on the next barrel creating a bridge for the water to flow across. The length of this bridge is determined by the size of your rain barrel stand. Our stand was designed to hold five barrels making the overflow pipe about six inches long. Between four and six inches is a good size.

Wrap the threads of one male adapter with Teflon tape and screw the adapter directly into the barrel. Just as before this should take an output of some brute force as the connection should be very tight. From the inside of the barrel, screw the lock washer over the threads sandwiching the barrel in between. Use the hack saw to cut a 4-6 inch section of ABS pipe and fit the pipe into the male adapter so that it sticks out from the barrel at a 90 degree angle. Use the ABS cement as directed to liberally slather the connection. This stuff dries fast and doesn't like to come off of your hands. If the overflow is fitting into another water barrel, the second male adapter would be sandwiched around the second water barrel and the ABS pipe would fit across. Both connections would be covered in ABS cement to ensure no leakage around the seals.

To have the single barrel set up, fit one of the 90 degree ABS elbows onto the end of the ABS pipe and point the opening toward the ground. Measure the length from the opening of the ABS elbow to the ground and subtract 2 inches from that length. Use the hack saw to cut a section of ABS pipe to this measurement. Fit the pipe securely into the elbow and attach the second 90 degree elbow to the end of the vertical pipe. Point the elbow in which ever direction you would like your water to overflow. At this point you can either fit another section of ABS pipe out of the elbow on the ground, or you can let the water run off from there. Cut a 6 inch by 6 inch square of screen and fold it over the end of your overflow pipe (or elbow) securing the screen with the large rubber band. This is to ensure that mosquitoes don't fly through the pipe and lay eggs in your rain barrel. Do not use the ABS cement on your overflow connections. If you ever decide to add onto your rain barrels you will have to buy completely new pipe. The cement does not come off. It was designed by NASA or something and is crazy adhesive!


You now have a complete rain barrel set up that merely needs to be connected to the gutter. Unhook your current down spout and set it aside. We haven't really figured out a very good thing to do with the old downspout so anyone out there who comes up with a neat idea, let us know. Attached the downspout adapter to the base of your gutter system with a few miscellaneous screws and the flexible downspout to the other end of the downspout adapter with a few more miscellaneous screws. The flexible downspout will probably have to be shortened, just be sure you allow for enough tension that it is pushed taught into the water barrel. Line your water barrel set up on the stand and place the screened in pot (from the beginning of this process) back into the top hole. Manhandle the flexible downspout into the screened in pot so that there is enough tension for the downspout to keep the pot in place and the pot to keep the hose in place.


The learning curve on this process was very rapid. By even the second barrel, Jules was moving at a much more rapid rate. The repetition of drilling, jig saw cutting, X-acto trimming, and then Dremeling the holes is exactly the same for each incision and thus leads itself to some significant muscle memory. Secondly, as we have begun such projects as the rain barrels and their stand we have slowly acquired the necessary tools and workmanship to be able to attempt future endeavors. Combined with the added bonus of Guadelupe's expert supervision, we have been able to accomplish much more than I would have felt comfortable with alone.

The entire project (and indeed our complete lifestyle simplification) has been a process of slowly gaining more and more knowledge to be useful in the future. We are relying on each other and talents we never knew the other (or ourselves) possessed. The moral, I guess I'm trying to convey, is to not be intimidated by the magnitude of a project such as this. Make a list, take it to the hardware store, talk about it with guys like Ron, Scott and Val. Get to know your neighbors by asking if anyone has a Dremel, power drill, or hack saw. Tell them what you are doing, let them know they can come and help. Strike up interest not only for yourself, but to make social connects with others. We did not know what we were doing before this and are learning as we go. If you take your time and thoughtfully progress through, you'll come up with great results.

Another great resource we discovered was Instructables. Type in rain barrels, green house, deck, or whatever else you might have been fantasizing about building. The directions are great, with pictures and process explanations all along the way. Be willing to surprise yourself and your family; Jules certainly did with us. (Can you tell I'm really proud of him!)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Please Pass the Broccoli

Jules is not a veggie man. That's okay, I love him anyway. Slowly, I'm converting him over to my wiley vegetable ingesting happiness. He even caught himself off guard the other night at dinner when he asked "Please pass the broccoli." The request was quickly followed by, "I never thought I'd say that." With Jules vote of approval broccoli slaw has become a family favorite around our household, but unfortunately one thing the Spicy Barracuda won't touch. He'll eat asparagus, but not broccoli slaw! Sometimes this kid is crazy. A food processor is a great help at getting the broccoli in little bits without covering your counter in broccoli dust, but it isn't essential by any means. Mainly, the broccoli is just chopped all up so that it is fluffy and not an overly blocky, crunchy mass on the plate.

Broccoli Slaw


Ingredients
1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced
4 slices of uncooked bacon, bacon fat, anything bacon-like
5-6 small crowns of broccoli
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Dressing
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup of vinegar or lime juice
3/4 cup of yogurt (any desired flavor, we use peach)
1/2 cup of mayonnaise

I always make the dressing first and let it sit a bit before I mix the salad all together. ("A bit" is sometimes just as long as it takes me to do the other things, and sometimes earlier in the day when I have a minute.) In a cereal bowl, start with the brown sugar and stir in the vinegar/lime juice until the brown sugar is melted and smooth. Next mix in the yogurt with a whisk, lastly whisking in the mayo. The dressing will be runny, sweet and slightly tangy. If it is too sweet or too tangy, add a bit more mayo to balance it out. If too bland or thick add a bit more sugar or vinegar (respectively). Unfortunately like any salad dressing, this isn't an exact science. We have figured out what our family likes, but it is so personal. Give it a try, and be willing to perfect it on the second attempt because this salad is one that is hard to go wrong with.

When the dressing is all mixed up, I cut the bacon and the fat into small bits and fry it up in a saute pan on medium high heat. A minute of two later I dump in the onions. Stirring, them together so the bacon fat coats the onions and distributes the taste. When the bacon starts to brown, I turn down the burner to medium heat and let them simmer a bit.

While the bacon and onions are simmering, cut the crowns of broccoli into bits your food processor can manage. You can use stems and all. Pulse in rapid succession about three times till the broccoli is ground up, but not completely pulverized. The point is to have crisp broccoli bites, so if the broccoli is too fine it becomes soggy with sauce; if it is too large, it is in crunchy chunks and the flavors don't meld. Place all the processed broccoli in a large bowl.

Mix the Parmesan cheese in with the broccoli until it is thoroughly incorporated. Add the bacon and onions from the stove along with any drippings and mix thoroughly again. Lastly, thoroughly mix in the dressing.

You can now either eat it right away, or set it in the fridge to be eatten later. This is a great picnic salad, summer munching fare, or quick side dish. What I really like about it (other than getting Jules to admit he wants more broccoli) is that the cost is incredibly cheap. By using bacon bits and pieces, one of the smaller onions in the bag, some cheapo grated Parmesean cheese, and odds and ends from the fridge for dressing, you create a really tasty quick side dish. Those are the favorite in our household.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bedtime Stories

My son and I have begun reading Peter Pan before bedtime. This is my attempt to have him exposed to great literature and use his imagination. A great added perk is the wonderful conversation which has spun out of it and all the questions he is now asking. His patience for listening has become quite impressive and he rarely interrupts any more, content to just listen and ask his questions later.

I would like to clarify that we aren't talking Disney. There is a great dislike within me for how much Disney steals, rewrites, waters down, and generally simplifies leaving so little left of substance. I enjoy the animated movies as much as the next guy (and some of the music is incredibly well done), but I don't feel that having a child watch Pocahontas or Beauty and the Beast does the actual tales any justice whatsoever. Alright, I'm stepping down from my soapbox now.

The beginning of the story is a bit convoluted for younger children, but I think the idea of having to give the book a chance is important. Sometimes it is the first hundred pages you have to diligently plod through, not just the first twenty-three. At any rate he hung in there till Peter showed up to have his shadow stitched back on and is thoroughly entranced at this point.

Taking the time to spend a good thirty minutes or more in the evening just sitting next to him and sharing a story is a simple pleasure we rarely engaged in before. By the time he was to go to bed, I was more looking forward to personal time than thinking about the opportunity we were passing up. It wasn't until we learned of the need to homeschool him next year (his birthday misses the cut off by 4 days and the district turned down our appeal) that I decided it was necessary to begin actively engaging him in literature. We have gone to the library for quite some time now, and he reads almost completely without aid, but I mean real literature; time-honored, classic books. It has turned into a real bonding experience for us and hopefully something he will fondly remember when he is older.

Peter Pan is an enchanting story so entrancing to children and adults alike it has become embedded in our culture. The best part, for me as a parent, is now re-reading the story and finding so much of the language deeply poignant and touching. The whimsy and mystical approach to which it is written are things that might fly completely over his head right now, but I hope will stick in his mind somewhere if only to give lingering wonder to other aspects of the world.

Stars are beautiful, but they may not take an active part in anything, they must just look on for ever. It is a punishment put on them for something they did so long ago that no star now knows what it was. So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder.
(pg. 22)

Perhaps in reading to my son at night, I can rub away some of my glassy eyes and re-instill a little wonder in myself.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hello Spring, Goodbye Pumpkins

Today we celebrated the Spring Equinox in our family by making chocolate pumpkin brownies out of the last of our cans of pumpkin. In planting a substantially larger garden this year, I'm attempting to stay in season with the fruits and veggies we eat. Pumpkins are definitely august and winter fruits so baking up the last pumpkin brownie muffins seemed an appropriate way to usher in the spring.

We are lucky in that our house was previously owned by someone who loved flowers. Bulbs of all different types began sprouting up this last month and are beginning to bloom. They are a wonderful splash of color to move around our yard by transplanting and separating the bulbs. The front and side of our house are now covered in Narcissus so that passers by can see our cheerful flowers. They are also beginning to grace the spots between larger trees and bushes in the backyard as they continue to multiply. I cannot help but try to save them because they are so beautiful. Flowers are something I never would have appreciated or spent money on had it not just occurred without our intention. The flowers have been great additions inside as the rains are starting to come more frequently now. Just another reminder to me to stop and start observing the things around me rather than rushing through the day from one chore to another.

With the coming months our backyard of fruits will begin to come into season meaning an end to the heavy dense desserts the winter months lend themselves so well to. Chocolate Pumpkin Brownies are a great closure to the chilly temperatures, but more importantly they are a wonderful way to enjoy a glass of milk and an hour or so with the Barracuda.

Spicy Barracuda loves to bake things together. He enjoys everything from cracking the eggs to adjusting the levers on the mixer. We get to talk about all sorts things and it is a good way for us to have conversation around a subject that isn't intimidating. Lately we have also been working on fractions since he has noticed all the numbers on the measuring cups and spoons. He never ceases to amaze me with the things he notices and is curious about. More than anything it is a way to slow down the hectic pace of our days and fit in some one-on-one time where we solely focus on creating something together. I get to laugh at the amount of batter he can get all over his face, in his hair, up his nose, covering his ears and Lord only knows where else when he licks off the mixer attachment. He gets a great sense of accomplishment in being able to help and watch the ingredients come together turning into a delicious snack. To me he is not only learning the valuable skills of cooking and seasons, but also how to enjoy conversation and time with someone without the television on. Perhaps I'm just old fashioned, but I like the idea that my child likes to just sit and talk with people for stimulus instead of plugging in to an electronic gadget.

Chocolate Pumpkin Brownies


Ingredients
1 stick of butter
2 cups of sugar
2/3 cup of apple sauce
1/2 cup sour cream
1 can pumpkin (1 home quart or 1 large Libbys)
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp all spice
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together eggs, sugar, applesauce, and butter. Blend in pumpkin and sour cream. In a separate bowl sift together cocoa, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, all spice, baking powder and soda. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet, mixing completely before adding more. Fold in chocolate chips. Pour into greased muffin tins and bake for 15-25 minutes. This recipe makes two dozen, if you can keep them around that long.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sick

The Spicy Barracuda is currently sick with Jules and I fending it off. Today was a day of snuggling on the couch, watching movies, and taking it very very easy. Barracuda is allergic to most all over the counter kid's medicine due to a filler that is commonly used. Rather than hives and vomiting on top of being sick, we resort to using herbal remedies. (Jules would like me to rephrase that - nasty herbal remedies.) I'm a big fan of not using the chemical products, but since most herbal remedies need to be used when you first feel the onset of sick coming, they are hard to use with a child. If the Barracuda had told me a week ago he was starting to feel like he might be getting sick, we wouldn't really be here right now playing catch up with battling viruses. I must say, however, at four and a half he does remarkably well with the whole feeling icky and taking medicine thing.

Our household uses horehound when we are sick with colds. Horehound is an herb that has been prescribed from as far back as the Greek physician Dioscorides in 40-90 AD. He advocated a concoction of horehound for tuberculosis, asthma and coughs. The herb is an effective immune booster. It is quite nutritious, containing vitamins A, B, C and E, essential fatty acids, iron, potassium and marrubin (an expectorant). Mainly, Horehound has proven to be effective in loosening phlegm and mucus in the bronchial tubes and in the lungs, however it will also relieve coughs and sore throats. The German government's committee of herbal experts, known as Commission E, has sanctioned horehound for use against bronchial problems, including laryngitis.

Footnote: Information and recipe acquired from A-Z Health and Beauty
http://health.learninginfo.org/herbs/horehound.htm



Horehound works really well for us, but I will warn you it tastes terrible. There is no getting around it. Jules and I create a fowl tasting (and smelling) tea by using 1/4 cup of Horehound and letting it boil on the stove till it is the color of hardwood stain. By condensing it this much you only have two swallows to get down, and only have to ingest it about 4 times. Though it will not make you feel amazing, it will prevent you from becoming full blown sick. Having the Barracuda try this, however, would be completely useless. So, he uses a cough syrup.

Horehound Cough Syrup
1/4 cup dried horehound
2 cups of water
3 cups of honey

Put horehound and water in a pot and heat until boiling. Let steep 10 minutes and then strain. When cooled add honey and mix well. Bottle up for use later.

Originally I wanted to grow it in our garden, that is until I got a look at the plant. As much as horehound is a wonderful medicinal herb, it isn't going to win any beauty contests. Also, it is related to mint and will take over. Hard to kill and a glutton for punishment, the plant will grow most anywhere and is very difficult to get rid of. Well, that killed the garden idea. Now, we pick horehound up our at a local herb shop and it is very reasonable in price when purchased in loose leaf bulk. It can be purchased at some natural stores in cough syrup already, but when I purchased it this way for the Barracuda at Whole Foods it was almost 10 dollars a fluid ounce! So, we kept the jars and now I make it.

In our house sick also means it is time to start defrosting the chicken stock from the freezer. Whenever chicken is on sale, I usually buy at package or two for the sole purpose of making chicken stock. Usually it is chicken quarters or thighs, but it doesn't matter. Whole fryers work as well, they are usually just more expensive than a package of pieces.
Chicken Stock

Ingredients
2 chicken quarters
5 celery stalks, tops too
3 carrots
1 onion
1/2 stick of butter
4 garlic cloves
3 rosemary sprigs
4 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Cut the veggies into large pieces and then dump everything into a giant stock pot and heat on high until boiling. Boil about 5 minutes and turn down to low/medium heat. You want it to simmer all day, just below a boil. Stir frequently and check the water level so that the ingredients stay below the water level. After 6-8 hours, use a strainer to drain the liquid into another bowl. At this point the chicken should have fallen apart off of the bones. I separate the chicken (as best I can) and dump it in with the liquid and freeze it into tupperware containers. The murshy veggies then go to our compost pile. These become the bases for soups, sauces, and casserole all month. It stretches one package of chicken a long long way. I'm sure the same thing would work with veggie stock if your household didn't do meat.

To turn the chicken stock into soup all you need to do is re-add some onion, carrot, a clove of garlic (due to being sick), and some noodles. This means our family can have home-made chicken soup in about 10 minutes on the stove.

It works out really well for us to readily have the chicken stock all made up. I can either defrost it the night before or pull it out and microwave defrost it if I forget. By using a day off to make up three or more Tupperware containers, I don't have to bother with the extensive cooking during the times when life is so crazy I can't think about it or when I feel just as yucky as those I'm cooking for.

When we make stock, we turn off the heat and let the warm smell of the soup fill the house. The Spicy Barracuda and I snuggle up on the couch and he read a book to me while I knit. We have great conversations, watch a movie together, and just enjoy each others' company. In this way, soup and stock are great ways to not only nurture your body but each other as well.

Friday, March 13, 2009

High Fructose Fat?

High Fructose corn syrup is in just about everything these days! One of the major benefits from starting to make our own snacks is the removal of this product from our daily consumption. As much as I knew that high fructose corn syrup probably wasn't the greatest thing for us to be eating, the effects of this product were virtually unknown to me until I began looking for ways to make our snacks at home.

When we first started removing packaged products, granola bars were one of the first to go. They were an easy product to just stop buying without impacting the daily goings on of our household. Both Jules and the Spicy Barracuda love a quick snack and the accessibility of granola bars so I had to find an equivalent substitute.

What is one of the main ingredients in most all store bought granola bars? High Fructose Corn Syrup. It just plain tastes good! However, high fructose corn syrup makes up nearly half of the sweeteners used in processed foods and is found in everything from sodas and fruit juice to crackers and cereal. Due to being six times sweeter than cane sugar and made from highly subsidized corn, high fructose corn syrup is significantly cheaper for commercial companies to use.

The catch is our body does not process high fructose corn syrup in the same way as sugar. Fructose is processed in our liver, and once there it triggers the liver's release of fat cells, called triglycerides. High triglycerides put us at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, and for putting on - and keeping on - weight. Scientists have also shown that the sweetener doesn't send the same "I'm full" message to the brain as happens when we consume sugar. This adds to the amount of unnecessary sugary snacks we consume.
Statistics and Information acquired from Grub:
Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry


Honestly, the first batch of granola bars were a bit of a disaster. They were uber crunchy, rock hard, crumbly things that the Barracuda diligently ate. He exclaimed their greatness as he does most anything Mommy makes (except broccoli slaw) in sentimental loyalty, but I knew the truth. Jules is not quite as humoring as the Barracuda and wouldn't go near them at all! A revision was necessary and quick!

After much internet research and dozens of recipes, I began to look much more at what they were doing, rather than what they were made out of. I know the ingredients our family likes, it was how to combine them so that the granola bars wouldn't be incredibly crunchy and would still stick together. It appeared to be a very simple ratio of sweet chewy goo to dry ingredients. Another attempt and the results were significantly different. Jules loves them now and the Barracuda has a hard time deciding between granola bars and his favorite breakfast of apple cinnamon oatmeal.

The dry ingredients don't matter. It is completely up to the tastes of your particular family. We like oatmeal, rice krispies, peanuts, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, and rough chopped mixed nuts. Other great add ins are wheat germ, flax seeds, coconut, and pumpkin seeds. This is a great way to get rid of odds and ends left in your pantry! The most helpful thing I have found is bulk trail mixes which come in tons of different varieties. You can find them with chocolate pieces or beloved M&M's, fruit and nut bits (our favorite so far) , salty pretzel combinations, and all sorts of stuff. They usually have a wide range and balanced variety of tasty snackworthy ingredients. These are wonderful when it comes to the flavored part of the granola because you don't need much of each ingredient just a balance of lots of little stuff. The trail mix also helps with variety if your family winds up loving this recipe as much as mine. We usually get about 3 cups of the trail mix and that will last for 3 batches of granola bars. The cost varies depending on which mix you get, but normally it is between 2-5 dollars a pound.

As much as possible, I get the mixed nuts/peanuts/oatmeal without roasting, oil, or salt. It isn't necessary for this recipe because the ingredients are covered in sticky sweet goo which overpowers everything else. If you are totally a salt fiend go ahead, but my guys don't miss it.

The ratio I've found to work is 7 1/2 cups dry ingredients to 2 1/2 sticky goo. These are approximates; it really won't matter if they aren't exact.

Granola Bars

Dry Ingredients
3 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups rice krispies
1 cup peanuts
1 cup steel cut oatmeal
1 cup trail mix
2 Tblspns Cinnamon

Delicious Sweet Goo Ingredients
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 stick butter
1/2 cup peanut butter

The honey and peanut butter can be the super cheap stuff. The flavor isn't impaired at all and it is significantly more cost effective. They are designed to bind the bars together, but allow enough oil for them to not become a granola brick.

Thoroughly mix your dry ingredients together in a gynormous bowl and set aside. (A clear Pyrex bowl works wonders because you can see through on all sides.) On low to medium heat combine brown sugar, honey, butter, and peanut butter in a sauce pan. Stirring with a wooden spoon I found worked the best, though a whisk would work too if you don't mind creating more dishes to clean. Make sure the heat is high enough for the ingredients to begin to melt together, but not so high it scorches them. You are basically trying to combine all of these ingredients together to become a very sticky caramel-like substance.

When the gooey stuff is well melted and combined (about 5 minutes) and beginning to bubble slightly, remove from heat and dump into the bowl of dry ingredients using the wooden spoon to scrape as much from the pan as possible. Immediately put dish soap and water into the sauce pan to soak. (The first time I made the mistake of allowing the goo to dry in the pan....It wasn't pretty or easy to remove. Lots of soaking, lots of scrubbing.) Mix the dry ingredients and goo together really well, making sure there aren't any pockets where the dry ingredients are hiding. This is why the clear bowl is so helpful.

Line an 11 x 13 pan with parchment paper, leaving a small amount of overlap so you can pull up on the parchment to remove the granola bars. Be sure to also grease the parchment; they are virtually impossible to get out without this! Firmly press the granola goo mixture it into the pan. I used large ziplog bags as gloves to smash the granola goo as tightly as possible into the bottom and corners of the pan. Let the pan sit for 4-6 hours or until the granola has completely cooled! I usually come back to them a couple of times to smush them down firmly again. The smushing is how they stay together, but are still chewy. When they are totally cooled, pull up on the parchment to remove the granola bars in one large granola brick.

Press down firmly with a knife to cut the brick into bars. Don't saw! They will fall apart. I put all the bars into a large ziplock and place them in the pantry. Some people wrap them individually in plastic wrap to grab and go snack.

This recipe makes one large ziploc full of granola bars, which is about how many we go through in two weeks. Sometimes, I make two pans at the same time so that I don't have to wait the 4-6 hours of cooling time twice. The heating and mixing doesn't take long at all (maybe 30 minutes?). They are a wonderful replacement for the store bought version of granola bars and I've noticed us start to eat them instead of cookies as well. You can increase or decrease the amount of sugary goo depending on how your family likes them, but I highly doubt they will miss the high fructose corn syrup!

Rain Barrel Stand

A wonderful way to decrease the price of your garden is to begin harvesting rain. We live in a fairly rainy part of the country, but rain barrels can be helpful regardless of where you live. The water we harvest is used for irrigation, and we get a discounted sewer bill because we have disconnected the downspout. The main expense of a garden (other than personal labor) is the water used to irrigate. With rain barrels that expense is almost completely removed!

There are a few things to consider when purchasing and creating a rain barrel set up. First off, all barrels should be made of food grade materials. This means they will not leech chemicals into the water you harvesting. Secondly, even if they are food grade you need to be sure they didn't contain any detergents, chemicals, or other additives which could have residue in the container. That being said, they are relatively easy to acquire and can be cheap if you are resourceful. We get ours from an industrial food company near where we live that uses them to store tea for transport to the bottling station. When the barrels are done being used, they sell them. Another place to inquire for them is to frequently patrol Craigslist. (Just select your state/city and look in the farm+garden section.)

Rain barrels shouldn't sit directly on the ground, but have air flowing around them. This is mainly because you want to be able to fill up containers from the faucet you place in the barrel. If the barrel is on the ground, you cannot do this without placing the facet in the center of the barrel and rendering half the container useless. Also, with air circulating around the barrel mold, moss, and sludgy gunk doesn't build up. Another helpful factor of having the barrels on a stand is that the ground is not level, so the water won't be level in the barrel if they sit on the ground. Below are the steps and materials we used to create our simple rain barrel stand. The stand is 7 1/2 inches off the ground, 26 inches wide, and 131 inches long. It will hold 5, 55 gallon rain barrels and provide us with enough irrigation for 2-3 months. One gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, meaning the structure needs to be able to support 2,200 pounds. For this reason, it needs to be pretty hardcore.

Materials
2 8" 4x4 pressure treated posts; cut into 8 - 25" sections
12 8" 2x4 pressure treated boards; cut into 32 - 29 1/4 " sections (there will be unused boards)
1 box 3 1/2 inch galvanized screws
2 boxes 2 1/2 inch galvanized screws
2 bags quick set cement
(All of these items cost us $110 dollars at Home Depot. One season of irrigation is at least that, probably closer to double.)

Tools
Post Hole Digger
Power Drill
Power Saw
String or twine
String level
Post level
1 inch spacer (we used an old scrap board)
(Technically you can just use a screwdriver and a hand saw, but you are WAY more hardcore than we are!)

Making schematic drawings is Jules' area. I'm getting better at it, but still have remedial visual skills at that sort of thing. Below is a recreation of drawing he made to show me just what we were going to be doing.First we looked at the posts we had cut. Some of the ends were flatter and smoother than others. When we selected which ends should be the top sides, a nail was pounded halfway into the center of the post. Not only would this remind us which end to put in the ground, it assisted in using the string level to be able to level the tops of the posts. Next we dug the post holes. Starting with the corner holes we spaced them 130 inches apart length wise and 24 inches apart for the width. After we had sunk the corner posts in concrete, we dug the middle holes. This is mainly so I wouldn't trip or fall over them. I'm really clumsy and accident prone. The middle posts were spaced 43 2/3 inches apart along the length.
After the post holes were dug, we began at the corners centering, leveling, and setting the posts in the concrete. The posts were sunk 14 inches into the ground.
Once the corner posts have been set, use the nails sticking out of their tops to tie the string very taught from one nail across to the other. By hooking the string level onto the string, you can slide the middle posts up and down to make sure they are level with each other. This way your structure won't have a slant to it or be raised in the middle.

We poured the concrete into an old kitty litter bucket and used a trowel to dump it into the holes around the posts. Well, I should say Jules used the trowel. When I tried to use the trowel all that really happened was a lot of concrete scattered about the ground around the hole and not really in the hole. Did I mention I'm rather clumsy. I got to pour in the water! I did that really well (when Jules told me to). We used an old 2 liter bottle and it worked great at making the transport and pouring of the water manageable.
The posts need to set overnight to make sure the concrete has really hardened and is firmly in place. This is why the project takes at least a weekend. Once the posts are done the rest is very quick, however it goes much smoother and faster with two people working so that one can hold and the other can drill.

Now that the posts were all set, the supports for the base of the stand were nailed into place. Beginning at one of the corners measure the distance to the center of the third post. Cut 2 2x4 to that length and screw them to the sides of posts using the 3 1/2 inch screws (See the top down view of the schematic). Make sure the 2x4's are flush with the top of the post. Measure the remaining distance from the center of the third post to the end of the stand. Cut 2 2x4's to this length and screw them to the sides of the post. Repeat this procedure for the opposite side. It is the most structurally sound, if the short boards from the center of the third post to the end are on opposite ends of the stand. By this I mean that if you placed the short board on the east side of one end of the stand, place it on the west side of the opposite side. This will distribute the weight away from one specific weak place or joint in the structure. It may seem a bit like overkill, but the amount of weight on the stand is extremely heavy. If you have sunk $100 into the materials, why not go the little extra mile and make sure it will last quite a while. At this point the support structure for the stand is completed and all that is left are the slats the barrels will sit on top of.
The slats are the 32 2x4's which are cut into 29 1/4 inches. They should be just long enough to hang over the side a teeny bit. Begin at one end of the stand and screw the slats flat onto the 2x4 supports at each of the four places they contact each other. Using the 1 inch spacer (in our case an old spare board) but the spacer up to the secured board and in between the next slat to be drilled into place. This is where the extra person comes in really handy. Trying to juggle the spacer and secure the next board can be tricky. Don't move the spacer until at least two of the screws have been drilled into the new slat. By using the spacer before each new slat is drilled down, the will all be in a uniform distance apart and you won't have to cover the entire space with boards. This allows the movement of air as we discussed earlier as well. Make sure the edges of the slats are fush with each other or the end product will look a little awkward. If you would like to place a 2x6 cover over the exposed 2x4 ends there is no reason not to, we just didn't want to spend the extra money right now. We also placed some stepping stones in front of the stand when it was completed as we realized how muddy the exposed dirt is going to become with us walking back and forth during the rainy season. Some pavers might be in our future. If you had the money you could purchase those in advance and lay them after the posts were set, but before you began drilling the supports. This would allow the pavers to sit under the stand and continue out infront where you will be walking.

All in all the completed project took us about 7 hours of work and that includes the trip to the hardware store, but doesn't count the time for the concrete to set. We braved a hail storm, monitored a child and his puppy, and didn't have to go to the emergency room. To me, that would count as a success!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Normal?

I still think of us as normal, but in all honesty this probably threw us over the top into the realm of what my son will refer to as "his weird parents" when he is a teenager. To stop buying packaged foods in favor of those made at home was a very simple change that our household has made over about 3 months and it has done significantly more! This never began as a way to "Go Green." It was honestly that our food bill was reaching $300 a month and that just wouldn't do. We couldn't just stop buying food, something else needed to be done, so slowly we began venturing into the bulk food section of our local grocery store. Bulk foods generally cost less money because they can be purchased by the store in very large quantities and they aren't packaged. What shocked me was that many of them were the exact same product just without the box, and we were just going to put into the trash (or recycling) anyway.

We get everything from grated Parmesean and Ramano cheese to locally milled, all natural, whole wheat flour. We can get all natural wild rice, organic beet sugar, multiple varieties of raw nuts, dried fruit, whole wheat pasta, dog treats, candy, dark chocolate chips, and bajillions of other things in bulk foods that we could never afford in the swanky natural section packaged up in small quantities. The greatest part is not only are we getting a product whose quality is better than the packed brand name, but we are getting it for cheaper.

This seems as though it goes against all common sense and depending on where you live, it might. We are not shopping at Fred Meyer (Kroger) with their small (though ever expanding) bulk foods or at Wild Oats (Whole Foods) and some upscale market places where everything costs more. We are fortunate enough to live around a regionally employee owned supermarket chain which provides dozens of selections of bulk food. However, an internet search might find you amazed at the number of stores offering such options. When our store stopped carrying raw sugar, I went on a quest to find more in bulk. The internet search gave me five other places which were much closer that carried the product. The difference in price was about 60 cents more a pound because the stores were independent and not a chain, but still well below buying the sugar in a package.

As much as Jules likes it, he has said it was the largest degree of culture shock to him. Where would we store all these jars of stuff? We are going to look into the pantry and not see anything to eat. This isn't the way normal people live. Coming out of a grocery store with all these bags of dried stuff, coming home to put all the dried stuff into jars on our shelves, not having any bright flashing plastic like presents ready to open caused him a mind glitch. Now, our cabinet doesn't have hardly any of them. Mainly we are now filled with large glass jars harboring everything from corn meal to black beans. However, Jule's admits his favorite part of this whole process is emptying the contents of all our bags into the jars and watching our food supply slowly grow. It is a level of security for him to know that every month we are slowly accumulating more flour than we use, more beans that we eat, more corn meal than I turn into bread. By having an ever growing (if however slightly) supply of food right on hand, it is a nice saving grace for the stress of a recession. It also means that if we don't have the money one month for a specific staple, we have some backup. As long as I create the snacks from the dried foods, he is happy to eat them. I like that the pantry is no longer clogged with box upon box of stacked treats and never being able to see anything. In fact we have more storage now than we ever did before!

The initial output for unpackaging you pantry is a little more because you have to have a place to store all of your culinary treasure that is now without its box. Standard glass jars can be purchased most anywhere (even Ikea) and cost around 10-20 dollars a piece. (I think we got ours at Fred Meyer (Kroger)) Once purchased, they last forever and are dishwasher safe. More than anything you want to be sure they have a lid that will seal either with a rubber ring and clamp or a twist on lid. This will keep the air out and your food from getting stale. It also helps with keeping the moisture from your food. Even simpler and without the cost is to save glass jars you would normally recycle or throw away. Many products from spaghetti sauce, to salsa, to sundried tomatoes come in glass jars with securely sealing lids. By running these through the dishwasher and saving them you have food storage without the cost of a large glass storage jar. The only draw back is merely size. If you chose to buy jars, you will recuperate your cost of the containers in mere months, have much better food to show for it and much fewer items in your pantry to take up space!

The initial thought I had about going over to bulk was "Where would we put it all?" I had no idea it would actually thin out our pantry because I had no idea how much packaged and processed food we actually ate. Now, that we have transitioned over to bulk foods and I have been reading up on the subject it kinda creeps me out!

Many things about the way our culture acquires its food I'd never really considered. However, I needed to do so reading up on ways to lower the costs of our household, and on ways to make it run outside of the mainstream. We were (and in many ways still are) a highly normal American family. I didn't honestly know much about food storage, or how much flour the average family uses in a month when making their own food (the internet tells all), or what goes into making corn bread without a box. So I hit the local library and began reading, I started with Google and began searching, I hunted down blogs and began asking questions of people who were living this way. That is when I began to realize the extent of our agriculture in this country.

Currently, each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. The amount of fuel it takes to put a meal on the table outweighs the amount of energy we gain from consumption of the food itself. Not only is fuel consumption created in direct transport, but also through processing, packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration. This doesn't even count the fossil fuels used in the synthetic fertilizer and pesticide used to grow and keep the food perfect looking.

Just think of it this way, if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week. That's not gallons but barrels.
Statistics and Information acquired from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver

Our families grocery bill is now $150 a month ($200 if you add the pet food and supplies) and we rarely ever go out to Taco Bell or Burger King anymore. We no longer associate cereal with a cartoon character, fruit with packaged gelatinous chewables, and Macaroni and cheese with a blue box. I make our food. I know what goes into it and where most of it came from. Our garbage bill has been cut %75 because we now have pick up only once a month due to a complete lack of packaging and an ever growing compost bin. More than anything else, we aren't getting sick anymore.

Jules spent most of last year feeling ill; when he got sick so did the Spicy Barracuda. Neither have had much over a day or two of feeling as though the onset of a cold might be coming. Though I have no direct evidence this is from a change in our diet and decrease in stress, there isn't much else that has changed. In general, we just feel better now that we eat better.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mornings

One of the major differences that our family has developed over the last few months is a shift away from the end product. Though we almost always start out with a desired end result, along the way it becomes apparent that what we really get out of our endeavor is going through the process together.

How disgustingly Zen is that!

The best current example would be our mornings. Most mornings I am awakened to this...

My blurry eyes take a moment to recognize that the cold wet thing in my face is our puppy's nose wanting to go outside. She is awake, and therefore I should be as well. Did I mention she is my dog?

Getting out of a snuggly, warm bed curled up with Jules is a very difficult thing, but I don't really want to know the consequences of ignoring Guadalupe. So up I get, out she goes, and I promptly stumble back to bed grumbling to Guadie that she better understand how much I love her to do this.

About two hours later, Jules gets up for work and I follow to make him coffee. About a month ago we invested in an espresso maker. It was $32 dollars and a fabulous purchase! As much as the coffee is nice, the way it has slowed the pace of our morning is the true benefit.

Jules loves coffee. In fact, the addiction is full blown to the cost of about 4 dollars every morning he drove to work. Counting the customary tip, that gets a bit pricey at 25$ a week. So our $32 dollar purchase, coupled with the 8 dollars in syrup for his iced mochas, was recuperated in about a week and a half.

Jules' morning used to be a rushed dash involving sleeping to the last second, and then trying to fit in feeding the cat, ironing clothes, assembling all his stuff for classes, trying to remember his lunch, and being out of the house in time to pick up coffee and battle traffic. I would sleep through all of this and Jules' envy would silently brew. Inevitably, his lunch would be forgotten, I'd feed the cat when I got up, something would be spilled with no time to clean it up, and the stress level of the morning would be all consuming rather than a gradual waking up to the day. Now, Jules gets to sleep in a bit longer. I feed the cat as I'm preparing his coffee and putting his lunch into Tupperware. With me setting his lunch out, he doesn't forget it. But most of all, we get time to talk to each other, to wake up together, and to begin the day enjoying one another. It has amazed me how much better my days are when I begin them with a smile and something positive. Even better, it allows us so much needed time without parental responsibilities.

As much as we try to fit in personal time for us to just be adults who love each other, any parent knows that doesn't happen as much as it should. Most of the time these stolen moments are groggy times at night when the Barracuda has gone to bed and we are beat from the day. By rearranging our morning, we can now save the coffee money and begin the day smiling with each other.

As much as getting out of bed a bit earlier seemed full of groggy discontent, I'm beginning to adore our personal morning time together. It also forces me to get up on the morning and begin the day in a good way. I can now eat breakfast, exercise, and have a moment to breathe into some tea. By the time the Spicy Barracuda awakens, I can have breakfast ready for him and snuggle up for a minute before he starts his PBS Kids cartoons.

The small things we are beginning to fit in our life make me very happy. As much as we love our coffee in the morning, it is the personal interactions which are being reintroduced which make the day that much better. It slows the pace of our lives from the very beginning of the day and really sets a wonderful tone to the rest of it.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Chocolate Hidden Vegetables

Exactly what our family is undertaking is a bit blurry for lack of a common mission when we began. Long before I started reading books and acquiring resources from Powells, this whole process started as more of a realization that our food bill was too high, the family was getting stressed, and the result was that what little time we had for each other was caught up in being sick or grumpy. When I had experienced the same dissatisfaction with my own life, I started making cookies. My son and I had lots of fun, a few flour fights, many dirty, sticky fingers and faces, and the end result were a couple dozen treats to either share with others.

Our wonderful neighbors had given us some zucchini they had grown in their backyard garden and I had a recipie for chocolate zucchini bread. I figured why not? Barracuda and I spent the afternoon making chocolate zucchini bread and later that evening gave one of the loaves back to our gracious nieghbors. They loved it, Barracuda loved it, and I was once again smiling.

Jules was a hard sell on this concept at first. He grew up in a household of fried ham, cheese, and mayonnaise sandwiches (I kid you not, I've eaten them!). Name brands not vegetables were the norm and his mom was admittedly "not a great cook." The idea of making food wasn't a bad one, it just couldn't match up to Keebler.

Keebler was inherently great also because it did not contain vegetables. Veggies are good for you, not good tasting. Needless to say, Jules was not informed there was zucchini in the bread until after he ate it, loved it, and wanted more. The zucchini was mentioned only when I expressed a desire to take the extra loaf back over to the neighbor since they were the reason we had such yummy chocolate bread. Grudgingly, Jules agreed with the promise more dessert was on its way to replace the gift. The vegetable turning point had occurred. Jules explained excitedly to the neighbors how the bread contained zucchini but actually tasted good!

From that point on, when we ran out of a prepackaged snack I wouldn't run to the grocery store to acquire more. Barracuda and I would make it for the family to enjoy. However, it took a while before we stopped purchasing all snacks at the store when we went grocery shopping. With the help of the internet, recipes for everything from Nutrigrain bars to Granola bars to more dessert cookies and breads than I could ever have come up with on my own filled our void in sweet tasty munchies. Soon after, I began making dinner every night and planning for Jules and Barracuda to have meals ready when I was at work. With readily available food which was good (and ridden with hidden veggies) there was no need for take out. As our homemaking progressed the grocery trips became further and further apart and the veggies more and more visible.

At this point we are not yet producing our own dairy products (though I'm considering starting to make butter next month), pasta, tortillas, or sandwich bread (another endeavor for next month). Mainly because I haven't found an effective way to do it. I've heard that pasta making is just plain arduous and I don't have any of the proper equipment. As much as I'd like to get there, it will be sometime in the future. Tortillas fall into this category too. Our household doesn't have a tortilla press (though this may be like a rice cooker - completely unnecessary!) and I haven't yet found a effective way to start producing them at home. However, I've acquired a simple butter recipe as well as a great bread website!

As for the dairy, well, this just plain freaks Jules out. That coupled with my knowledge of how difficult hard cheese is to create, we don't have the aging or packaging capabilities in our little house (900 sq ft), and local cheese is nationally renowned. So, we will buy it locally, support locally, and are just as happy about that. Ice cream is also a local treasure around here and we don't eat enough to go through the purchase of a crank, supplies, and time. I have worked at a dessert shop which handmade ice cream....it takes quite a while to produce hard ice cream and our freezer isn't cold enough. Cottage cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, and the like are on the horizon. But first, I'll figure out butter.

Chocolate Zucchini Bread


1/4 cup cocoa powder
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (optional)

I always make it with raw sugar and whole wheat flour. With the moisture of the oil, eggs, and zucchini it doesn't come out hard and dry at all. The cocoa powder also helps a ton here with taste. Jules had no idea and other probably won't either. I love the chocolate chips; Jules doesn't. They appear to be hit and miss with people.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9x5 loaf pans. Combine eggs, sugar, oil, grated zucchini, vanilla and chocolate; beat well. Stir in the flour, baking soda, and cinnamon. Fold in chocolate chips. Pour batter into loaf pans. Bake 60-70 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Hello All

After receiving many comments and questions about what our family is attempting, I've decided to start blogging it. Whether people are actually interested, or merely voyeuristic intrigued I will never know, but I think the process of remembering how to live smaller, fuller lives rather than larger, expensive ones will benefit us long after the recession has passed. More over, I hope to express to others how simple it really is and how amazingly enjoyable!

A couple of years ago I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Though I realized the agricultural system in America was probably not the greatest, I didn't understand how fully we have become removed from the natural environment which we lived. I had no idea when various fruits were in season; hell, I had no idea where my food even came from. I'd never grown any food of my own even though I had a spacious yard. I rarely made desserts in favor of prepackaged cookies. Cooking was something I had always enjoyed, but going to Burger King was equally desirable. What is more, I'd never even thought about so many of these things until someone stopped me and really asked. This was just the way I lived my life, my family had lived their lives, and everyone I knew lived theirs as well. But I was tired a lot, never seemed to have enough money even though I worked full time, didn't get to experience quality time with my son, and generally felt as though there was never enough time to reach out and grab the life which constantly felt out of reach. I decided to stop.

My full time job became a half time job. My son and I started making cookies and giving them to our friends and family. Not only could we no longer afford the packaged ones, it was fun and we could do it together. Exercise replaced shopping, the television was replaced by books (the library is free as well), and I began to spend a lot of time walking down by the river thinking about what I actually wanted rather than what I thought I should be doing. Personally, I decided to not go back to the rat race. I soon after began my unconventional life with Jules and together we haven't really looked back.

Recently, my son's father, Jules, and I decided to take it one step further. We are shifting our entire household away from packaged, processed food in favor of the simplicity of making it all ourselves. Soon we will be killing our TV and not converting to digital. We have removed a third of the yard to plant a garden, are hand digging a root cellar out of our crawl space, and are beginning to look at alternatives to the standard chemicals used in a household. This is not happening overnight, but it is making dramatic progress and our life is too. We are not trying to "go green" we are trying to simplify. We have basically decided to stop diversifying our life with consumerism and start making it ourselves. Hopefully in reading you will find small things to begin incorporating into your life and family as well.

Our Family
The Spicy Barracuda is our 4 and a half year old (now 5 1/2), crazy little man. He is a constant bouncing ball of precocious energy who loves to read, watch PBS Kids (No more Television), dance, cook and garden. It never ceases to amaze me the things he comes up with and all of his articulate declarations. The Barracuda has been an incredible help in our projects and still expresses wonder every time seeds sprout, trees can be climbed, or rocks are thrown into a river. His giggling cackle, mohawk, and love of the color purple and anything sparkly, force us to lighten up and enjoy the present. My Barracuda is my daily reminder to still search for knowledge, still strive to create, hope for better things to come, and marvel at the world around us. He is such a cheerful, good-natured child that very few days are unhappy in our household. Combined with Jules and an every growing puppy, they will soon begin eating me out of house and home!
None of this would be possible without Jules. He has been incredibly supportive (even when he thought I was crazy) and continues to enjoy our adventure together however nontraditional it might be. Jules teaches English, gardening, Earth Science, music appreciation and a handful of other subjects at an alternative high school always bringing home new and interesting topics for us to engage in. He was the creator of household dance parties and aided the Barracuda in his nickname by introducing the song by Heart. From the Beastie Boys and Wyclef Jean to Bob Dylan and Freedom Rock he has been integral to showing our Barracuda the wonders of music. An avid bicycler, long distance backpacker, and amazing dad, Jules makes every day worth snuggling into bed at night and waking up to in the morning. Out of everyone in our family, the transition away from mainstream has hit him the hardest, admitting the culture shock is sometimes hard to adjust to. Jules is my constant reminder that we don't have to be a "normal" family, we have to be a happy family.
Princess Bell Bell is our neurotic little shelter rescue. She is the softest, most snuggly cat if you are honored enough to be one of the chosen few she will grace the lap of. She frequents warm sunny windows, abandoned blanket covered furniture, and table and refrigerator tops all over the house always reminding us how graced we are to have her and the importance of a lazy nap. With the household addition of our new puppy a few months ago, we don't see her as much as we used to. Slowly that is changing and we are all very glad since she is a highly loved addition to our family and a cat in every sense of the word. Though she tolerates Barracuda very well, and enjoys me when I knit or read, she is Jule's cat through and through. A total daddy's girl!
Guadalupe the Maniac is our dopey little Rotty (We now know her to be doberman/shepard). I may say little now, but if her paws are any judge she will soon be HUGE! She is also a shelter rescue and our families Solstice present this past holiday season. At 5 months she is easily the size of Barracuda and they have many an adventure in the backyard together. She will sloppily lope after any stick and ball loving whomever threw it for the extent of a long fetch session. She is the silliest little thing, full of big paws, floppy ears, a barrel of a chest, and the wiggliest, frolicking walk I've ever seen. We adore her and all the playful silliness she has brought into the household. Though a chore at times, she is luckily cute as all hell and with merely a look or two can convince us to keep her regardless of the trouble she has gotten into. Guadie, as she is playfully nicknamed, is definitely my puppy. She will happily sleep with me, sit with me, lay in my lap (even though she no longer fits), be prone to fits of joy when I come home, and generally follow me throughout the house. Luckily Jules isn't too jealous.

Lastly, that leaves me. I'm an ex teacher of at-risk highschool students who might return once again in the future. I work part time at a local restaurant and spend my days being Barracuda's mom. I enjoy reading, knitting, cooking, working in our backyard garden, and learning more and more of the old world skills we seem to have lost contact with. Though this lifestyle many not be for some, it is an incredibly exciting way for me to nurture my family and experience living with them. I grew up in a household that had quite a bit of money, a large a house, and a complete lack of connection to each other or our surroundings. From that experience I would much rather have less money and more connection to each other. If it is one thing this change in lifestyle has provided, I would say it is a greater amount of time together and an appreciation for the Earth around us. In my opinion our lives have gotten fuller as we have removed the processed food and packaging. I now feel as though we are creating a life, rather than merely existing in a house.