One woman's quest to save money, save the planet and save my sanity

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick or Treat Confessional

As mentioned in a previous post, the idea of giving out traditional Halloween fare and all it's trashy accoutrement's, makes me feel a bit icky. I did have one idea to avoid the prepackaged tickets to the dentist, but it was a miserable failure. I thought I might give out Scribble Cookies. I frequently make these as party favors and stocking stuffers. I save our broken crayon bits and, after peeling the paper, break them up into bits, fill the bottom of a muffin tin and put them in the oven on 200 degrees for about 15 minutes or so. The result, when cooled, is a little rainbow chunk suitable for little hands to make big and crazy art. So I thought I would try to make these in ghoulish shapes, but the only Halloween molds I had were plastic candy ones. Knowing this would melt at even the lowest of baking temps I decided to try the melting process in the microwave, but it went nowhere fast. Then in a moment of delusion, I thought "Maybe it would be OK in the oven." The result was a big plast-ICKY mess and the demise of my candy mold. I did find a metal baking pan with pumpkin shapes at the store, but they were way too deep and would have created freakishly large coloring treats suitable for knocking siblings unconscious. Plus, the tray was nine bucks, so I passed. So I did end up setting out a bowl of individually wrapped candy bits and goldfish crackers, but I will do penance by spending the next year searching for a viable alternative. I do, however, recommend trying the Scribble Cookies. Those are good, clean fun.
We had our trick or treat last night and I wrapped up my costume creations just in time. I procrastinated more than usual this year, which accounts for my absence on the blog this week. But we are now post-holiday and I can breath easier. So here is the trio, youngest to oldest, in all their ghouly glory.

My sweet little spider was the most challenging ensemble this year. I got this idea last spring when I was going through some of my Dad's old clothes. God bless him, the man loved his black, nylon socks. He would be quite proud that they found new life as a costume creation. I stuffed the socks with newspaper and then attached them with Velcro and thread to a piece of cardboard that I covered with felt. It turned out to be heavier than I thought, though, and David had to come to the rescue and attached more heavy duty strapping with a drill and some serious muscle. Team this up with some black, thrift store clothes and the wicked
web-ster  was complete.



For some reason, this little insect escaped a decent picture, but you get the idea. I must admit, this is not my handy work. On a trip to Casa de Thrift to get two sets of plain black duds for the costume base, I decided to browse their costume selection and found this little tunic for a dollar. A DOLLAR! I couldn't even buy the fabric to make it for that price. So that took care of one bug and I just topped it off with a headband that I attached black pipe cleaners to for antennae.



Knowing that, at nine years old, the number of Halloween's that I will still be able to go homemade for my man motivated me to do something I knew he really wanted. I wasn't sure how we would do with The Joker, but I am quite pleased with the result. The key is to know what you are going to do well in advance so you can keep your eyes peeled for stuff you may need. I started picking up pieces here and there at the end of summer. The purple pants were off the dollar rack at the ubiquitous thrift store. The coat (actually a long ladies blouse, but don't tell him) and green t-shirt were also a buck a piece on a clearance rack at Wal-mart. I cut a V-shape out of the neck and just drew on buttons to make the vest. The shirt, tie, gloves and boots we already had. I did invest in the green hairspray and the make-up was leftover from a previous incarnation as a vampire. But really, would this get-up be complete without a young boys attempt to mortify his mother by channeling Heath Ledger?

Tonight we will make the annual costumed pilgrimage to Grammy's to delight her and make our way through the T or T maze of my youth. Although not the eco-ist of holidays, I did manage to get away with spending less than $15 to bring three kids their Halloween dreams-come-true and as I survey the damage of Peanut Butter Cup wrappers and lollipop sticks, I can't help but feel my Dad smiling upon me. Do you think they have Snicker Bars in heaven?

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Free Play Makeover

No, it's not for me, although I could use a serious overhaul. I keep waiting for those "What Not To Wear" people (most likely contacted by my very fashionable sister) to pop out from behind some aisle in a store or ambush me at preschool pickup. I would have to kill them if they tried to throw my clothes away, though. Not because I am particularly attached to them, but I spent good dollars at the thrift store one those and I can not condone such waste. The thrift store is certainly my favorite place to acquire new duds, but it is also my go to destination for just about all my other non-food needs, as well. So when I decided that I had finally had it with the mess the kids make of a playroom that I am chronically organizing, it only took a quick trip to Chez Cheap and I was off.

Here is a "Before" of the room in question. If I don't keep on them all day it ends up looking like this...



...or this



...and this.



                                                  
I was trying to think of a way to cut down on the amount of stuff and provide some new and stimulating ways to engage the kids (mainly the girls) in more productive play. I was checking up on one of my favorite blogs when I saw this on Our Yellow House. My Noah attended a Montessori preschool and kindergarten and I suddenly started thinking that all those Practical Life activities would delight the girls. So I did a little online research for inspiration and decided to go with a Montessori-ish theme. I moved all of the dolls, ponies, etc. onto higher shelves where the girls need to ask for them and filled the reachable areas with new activities that I put together for practically nothing.


A week and a half later and we are well on our way to a new way of playing and taking care of what we play with. Here are the shelves now. The top three shelves on the right and one of the ones on the top left are Noah's things and those still need to get pared down. The lowest shelf is all activities that need to be done on the floor. For these, the girls need to get one of the small rugs that is folded on the bottom left and their things must stay on that space. When they are finished, they must pick everything up and return it to the shelf before choosing something else. The next two rows up are all "works" that they will do on their table.


This used to be an end table that David had refinished, but we don't have room in our current living room configuration for it. The two little chairs were given to us for free when we stopped by our neighbors yard sale last summer.



The TV used to be here, but I moved it to the other side of the room because I hated it being the first thing I saw when I walked in. Since that move, the television has died and I couldn't be happier. We are not planning to replace it anytime soon. So now we have David's amazing dollhouse that he built for me last Christmas to greet us. The room also needed some additional lighting so I picked up this lamp at the thrift store for $5. It had a hideous black shade, but I found this funky one there for 50 cents. The rolling rack I got at another yard sale for $5 and it is awesome. The bins all slide out and I put some additional activities and books in it. Samson the itty bitty black kitty also wanted to get in on the action.


This is the new and improved Art Wall. Each child has a "clothesline" where we hang some of their recent work. There are also some projects created by the two oldest.


I moved this little corner table that I got from a free pile last year and made it part of our theme area. Right now I have out a little basket with figures from "Nightmare Before Christmas", some wooden apples and the Fall-ish books. All this was stuff we already had.

                                     
Here are the girls demonstrating one of the floor activities - stacking blocks. This can be a two person work and must stay on the rug to prevent them from getting thrown around the room.


This is an activity that helps build muscle strength and fine motor skills. Caroline uses tongs to transfer the little dinosaurs from one bowl to the other and back again. The whole thing stays on the tray and makes it easy to keep everything together and carry it to and from the table. I spent a total of 50 cents on this one.


This sorting activity can be done with any small objects, but Josie needed something a bit more challenging so here she is sorting a bowl of dried beans into a dish with three sections that I picked up for 50 cents.




The rice bin is a huge hit, but stays on a higher shelf and must be requested. It can get a little out of hand without supervision. I filled a large tub with rice and the girls dig for small plastic animals that are buried. This is a good one for them to work cooperatively on. They also like to use funnels and scoops to play with the rice. Some does get spilled, but it hasn't been too bad and after they are done I have them sweep up and they LIKE it!


Water play is always a hit, but I limit that to the kitchen. Each child has a tray, a dish of warm water and sponges cut into various sizes. They work on building muscles important to fine motor skills, like writing, by squeezing the sponges into the bowl. They also experimented with floating ad sinking. Had all the materials and just dried the sponges and put them away till the next time.


Pouring! I could write an entire post about how much kids love pouring. Here, Caroline is using a large plastic measuring cup with spout to pour into the funnel and fill a small glass vase. I put a drop of green food coloring into the water so she could see it better. This is all on a tray and a plastic place mat. Cost was 75 cents for a few things we didn't have a spare of.

Every day I think of more things to add and the beauty is that it all comes from right around me. The few things we didn't have I got second hand so there is not a single "new" item in the mix. The kids are loving it and I can't wait to incorporate some big kid activities for Noah. They are learning to work more peacefully and cooperatively. As I write this, they are ALL at the table behind me doing a puzzle together. And no one is SCREAMING. Miracles do happen. So take a look around, ask Barbie to scoot over and see what your kid can get their hands into.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reader Tip - Save your butta wrappers

My pal and true warrior mom, Vampmommy, emailed me when she saw my granola bar post to say that I could use my butter wrappers in place of wax paper when I press the mix into the pan. Genius! I have used the wrappers to grease pans instead of grabbing a paper towel, but they worked perfectly when I made a batch the other day as a handy, pre-greased piece of wax paper.
People may have been calling me "Butta" since I was 15, but this is a new use for the smooth stuff and I am super grateful.

This Weeks Thrift Store Haul

Sometimes I am on a mission when I go to the thrift store only to come up completely dry. I love deals, but I won't just buy anything. It has to be the right thing. Sometimes I go and just peruse and maybe pick up a gift to tuck away or a great pair of shoes. This week though, I went armed with a mental list that included:
  • a few backup pairs of mittens or gloves for the girls
  • a new hat for Caroline who is blessed/cursed with my hair which is ridiculously thick and makes hat wearing a challenge
  • something to organize the barrettes and ponytail holders that are taking over
  • materials to undertake a complete Montessori-ish playroom makeover

After spending $19.50 I walked out with the following:
  • 2 cute hats
  • 3 pairs of gloves
  • 2 metal lap traps with the folding legs in great shape and with identical girly design
  • a small three drawer organizer (for the accessory explosion)
  • 1 laundry basket
  • 3 medium storage totes
  • 2 plastic stackable storage drawers
  • 1 very nice plain wooden truck in perfect condition
  • 1 wooden tray
  • 2 basket trays
  • 3 sectioned plastic trays
  • 2 plastic sink size bins
  • small plastic storage box
  • small wooden handled brush, never used
  • a brand new dust pan
  • a huge vinyl placemat, brand new
  • brand new set of measuring cups and spoons
  • 2 small ladles
  • 1 pair of tongs
  • 1 small spreading knife
  • and my best find of the day, a totally cool three wheel scooter which Josie has been asking for as a birthday or Christmas gift, in great shape and only $1
Everything except the outwear, the hair nightmare holder, the lap trays (Christmas gifts for the ladies) and the scooter will be combined with things I already have to organize the playroom and create works and activities for the kids. I am only loosely using some of the ideas that I witnessed when Noah attended Montessori preschool and kindergarten. I want the girls to begin to keep their materials in a confined space, to finish what they start, to put away something before they take out another activity and to just up the ante a bit in terms of their home education. I am chronically feeling guilty because I spent so much time working with Noah on anything and everything and the girls have never gotten that type of attention. There will be a few new things out for Noah as well, but he is generally pretty neat about his things and has a high level of natural curiosity that leads him to explore in his own way.
So that is my room redo plus extras for less than 20 bucks. I will post some before and afters once it is completed and, in the meantime, I am preparing to arrive before the doors open at a super mega Rummage Sale on Friday. I hope to walk out with my Christmas and birthday shopping for the coming year done. I may get buck wild so I'm bringing $40.00.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One Morning Near Maine

To be clear - I am NOT a photographer. It is one of those skills I do hope to gain,
but here are some images from my 7am October world.



 I never knew a warm egg could be the best thing I touch all day. I slip them into my pocket
 and then hold them while I wait for the dogs to "get busy".  When I come inside and lay them in the carton beside their brethren, I count each one and say a silent thank you.




Meet Inferior Chicken. Don't worry, she isn't about to do anything. She just takes a look around and then goes about her day, pooping and eating. She is the only hen without a developed comb and her vent (that's butt hole to non-chicken folks) is puckered up tighter than a cheapskates wallet.




The chard and baby spinach look so sad at this frosty hour, but these greens are remarkably
resilient and by noon they will spring back to life and will be inviting me to come clip them
and turn them into something delicious.




This thin and curvy birch is my favorite tree on our property. It is dead or dying.
 I do not know which. The time will come when it will fall or need to be taken down and  I am already dreaming about what its new life will be.

When I am tired and weary from the daily chores that I have put upon myself by choosing this not-so-simple life, it is these moments that bring me back to the knowing that this is progress. These things are real and tangible connections to how we survive and, with a little luck, thrive.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reader Tip - Pumpkin for Pooches

Dear Friend and Reader Nurse Hoo-Ha has shared another handy use for canned pumpkin, reinforcing the need to have this pretty puree in your pantry.

"1/2 can of pumpkin puree can cure a beloved pet's digestive troubles- ie loose stools.
I always have one on hand."

I have also heard this, but thankfully, have YET to need it. With that said, I am sure Dog 1 or Puppy 2 shall develop a case of the trots in the AM.

Thanks Hoo!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vindication


I have been feeling a bit guilty that I spent $43.00 at Apple Annie's the other day. This fruity expenditure included 37 lbs. of end of season, Pick Your Own Cortlands that I only managed to get because I am 5'9". The entire time I was picking I was thinking of my grandmother saying to twelve-year-old me "Some day you'll appreciate being tall." and I would be all "Yeah, right.". I never believed her, especially since she was never taller than 4'10".
The rest of my purchase was 27 lbs. of what they call "sauce" apples. They are like seconds, small and maybe a bit imperfect. These are sold for .50 cents per lb and the PYO are .80 cents. So with my 64 lbs. of apples I am planning to make sauce, apple butter, misc. fall yummies like crisp and fried apples and also attempt to dry a significant amount for use during the winter when seasonal fruit does not exist in New England. I am going to try two drying methods. First I will see how it goes with a food dehydrator. At the bus stop one day, I noticed that my neighbor had one out with her trash. It was still in the box and she asked if I wanted it. Took it home and discovered it had never even been opened. Score! I will also string some up the old fashioned way and hang them above my newly drying jalapenos.
I wondered if I was crazy to lay out so much cash for apples, but on an emergency run to the dreaded Walmart tonight I saw the towering display of red, fall fruit by the door and the price was .79 cents per lb. When you average out the price of all my global goodies you get .64 cents per lb. Kiss my local, low spray ass Walmart!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Make breakfast an oat meal

I have to admit that there is many a morning when I just slap a bowl of cereal in front of my kids and hope they finish it in time to catch the bus. I, myself, am not a cereal fan as I grew up lactose intolerant and with a mother who only deemed two boxes nutritious enough to put in her cabinet - plain Cheerios (not even Honey Nut) and Quaker 100% Natural (which is delicious even if I always thought it was for old ladies). We pretty much always have store brand Cheerios (the honey nuttyish) that I buy in the big bags and also use as snacks and in trail mix. The other weekday morning choices are usually english muffin or toast with either peanut butter or our homemade jam or apple butter. Weekends are when I go all out and do pancakes, eggs, waffles and the like.
But once temperatures begin to dip into the 50's and the grass is crunchy when I step outside at 6:30am I begin to dream of oatmeal mornings. For some reason, oatmeal seems to have been marginalized to a packety powdery status or viewed as a bit of a hassle. Those little flavored oat pouches are sure convenient, but just about every bit of nutrition has been ground out of it and the excess wrapping triggers my gag reflex. Plus, the portions are ridiculous. It takes about three of them to make a decent adult sized meal. Hmmm...I wonder if they do that on purpose so you'll have to buy more? No, corporations can't be that manipulative. They always have the consumers best interest at heart. *Insert sarcasm here*


I was on a kick with steel cut oats for a while. If you've never had them, you should definitely give it a try. They have a chewier and coarser texture than rolled oats and are derived from the inner portion of the oat kernel, but have only been cut into two or three pieces. The only drawback is that the cooking time can be be nearly double that of rolled oats and on weekday mornings it is tough to get it done. Some people do prepare them the night before in their crock pot, but if I'm being realistic, I know that getting the oats ready as I am stumbling through my nightly chores is about as likely to happen as me hopping into the nesting box and laying an egg. In addition, the kids are not huge fans and so these nutty little oat gems only make an occasional appearance in our breakfast bowls.
That brings us back around to traditional rolled oats. Everybody has some, but they are often relegated to the shelf of Seldom Used Baking Ingredients. My love for these grains in apparent in my Homemade Chewy Granola Bar recipe and there are many more delicious treats that these come in handy for, but they can also be amazing when they fly solo. Additionally, they fall into both the eco and cheapo categories. I purchase the 100% Whole Grain Old Fashioned Oats in the huge 42 oz. canisters. Not only does this cut down on excess packaging, but these containers can be reused for a multitude of storage purposes. The store brand oats in this size cost me $2.28. I find the serving size on the package to be about right for us. The girls eat a little less than one portion and the rest of us a bit more so it evens out. There are 30 servings per container so that works out to less than .08 cents per serving. Consider ten minutes total prep time and I am compelled to quote Grey's Anatomy and say "Seriously."

As for flavoring these grainy goodies, I like to keep it fairly traditional. My hubby enjoys consuming them al natural (gross), but the rest of us like a little more sweet lovin'. I typically go with either maple syrup/brown sugar/raisins or brown sugar/cinnamon/chopped apples with a little milk to cool it and add creaminess. Tomorrow I will be drying some of the apples that I just picked to utilize in oatmeal this winter as we try to ween ourselves off of foreign fruit. So let's say these add ins even double the cost per bowl, that's still only .16 cents per person and I'd like to see a sugar laden, packaging nightmare, crappy toy promoting box of cereal top that. So dig into the back of your cupboard or glance to the right or left of your normal breakfast aisle purchase and discover the warm and frugal goodness of a hearty bowl of oats.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Halloween History

Let's just put it out there right now - my mother is amazing. Not in a baking cookies-cleaning your room for you-white glove test- kind of way, but in a stay up all night to help you finish a project and still go to work the next day- Girls Scout leader/Sunday School teacher- teach you to love others as you would love yourself- "I am so proud of you"- should be canonized- sort of way. She was and is the best and although she wasn't super crafty, one of the things I will never forget is that she ALWAYS made our Halloween costumes. Even if it was out of poster board or assembled from old clothes, we never had a store-bought get up. So when I became a mother and had no vision of what kind of a parent I would become, I at least knew that I wanted to carry on this tradition. One of the most special things about doing this was that when my son was born, my Dad had already retired and since he was the only one in the family who could operate a sewing machine, we worked together on many of Noah's costumes. These have become the most cherished of memories as my Dad passed away over 4 years ago. Although my girls did not know him, when they don one of the costumes that he helped to create, we can talk about how wonderful he was and we all feel him close to us once again.
Even though Dad is not with us to help sew buttons or cut fabric, we are still carrying on with our commitment to do Halloween Homemade and now I try to give it an ecological twist, as well, by repurposing things we have and purchasing as much as possible from the thrift store. This year, I am making a Joker (a la Batman) for Noah, a ladybug for Josie and a spider for Ms. Caroline. These are a work in progress and as soon as I am done I will detail how they came together and, of course, add photos.
Until then though, I decided I would post some of our earlier costume creations and possibly get some folks unstuck if they are still trying to figure out what they can put together and are feeling the pull of the plastic guises on the rack at Walmart. I am missing a few years that were pre-digital camera, but let's see what we've got.



AHA! Noah as a musketeer at age 4. Not a single stitch in this thing. Just printed out a fleur de lis, traced it, cut out felt and glued it together in the form of a smock. Add an eyeliner mustache, David spray painted a dowel and made it into a foil and all the clothes were pulled right from his drawer or dress up box.



He wanted to be a vampire so I pulled this cape out of the dress up box and just put the rest together from things around the house. Did have to buy the fake teeth and some black hair spray. We also invested in a cheapo makeup kit that year. It is still going strong and noone's face has fallen off yet. Josie spent her first Halloween as his bat which is made mostly out of a hooded sweatsuit and was transformed from Noah's baby costume as a black cat. I ditched the tail and made wings out of cardboard covered with felt.



Stop! You're under arrest for continuing to crank out kids! After two babies in 18 months I did break down and buy the police hat and night stick. Again, the rest of his outfit is from clothes we had. I took white sweatsuits that I had for the girls along with baby hats and drew the lines with fabric marker. My favorite part was the ball and chain that each girl had. Painted a Styrofoam ball and made a pipe cleaner chain. Noah was six here and that was the last time I could con him into the group get up.



The gender neutral costumes were making their rounds this year with Josie wearing the Elmo costume my Dad and I made for Noah (he sewed, I dictated and made eyeballs). Caroline revived the bat and Noah went as a Highland Bagpiper. We are Scottish and that was my grandmother's kilt. He had the hat already and I made the sporin (that pouch thingy) out of a men's shaving case, some faux fur scraps, and a ladies chain belt I found for 50 cents. This was his idea and was one of our favorites!


And here is the crew last year. Poor Caroline is the eternal recipient of the hand me down and is sporting  Elmo (no choice given here). Noah wanted to be someone from Star Wars and my limited crafting and sewing skills led us to compromise on being Luke Skywalker as a Jedi knight. All the black clothes came from the thrift store, those are my black boots and he pulled the saber out of his toy box. Josie as the bag of jelly beans has got to be one of my all time favorite creations and was certainly the easiest. Two clear plastic trash bags (which I later reused) a bunch of colored balloons (not so ecofriendly, but they had a ball with them later) and the headpiece top of the bag was made out of a paper plate that I wrapped with cellophane and tied with ribbon. I then velcroed the plate to an old hat and attached a ribbon that I tied under her chin to keep it straight. Paint a few jelly beans on those cheeks and we had Halloween heaven.

*The one disclaimer I should put out there is that my kids are not allowed to just pick any costume. It has to be something I can actually figure out how to make. Noah started off wanting to be Batman this year, but after some discussion we decided that the Joker was more doable. I gave each of the girls a choice between two different bugs that I knew I could pull off and let them choose. To get a closer look at any of the costumes just click on the thumbnail to see a larger image.

I put together this photo retrospective for two reasons - to show that someone who can't sew, knit, paint or craft at all and really does not have any artistic inclination whatsoever can get a little creative juice flowing and find a way to put something together AND to further show that costumes can be gleaned from things you already have and second hand sources and need not cost more than a few dollars. Sure, there is a time investment, but trust me, it pays in spades. I know that when my kids are 30- somethings, these are the things they will look back upon and remember that their mom did it because she loved them. I know this because every Halloween I am reminded that my mom was the greatest and that the memories of her creations have lasted far longer and are sweeter than any cookie she could have ever baked.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Ecothical Dilema #1 - Halloween Candy

I am struggling. Struggling to find the balance between adhering to my environmental preferences and not making my children the Halloween outcasts of the neighborhood. In recent years, I have been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the large bowl of garbage wrapped goodies that I put out for Trick or Treat. Aside from my aversion to candy on the whole (we use individual M&M's for behavioral rewards if that tells you how rare candy is in my house). In fact, at this moment we have no candy in the house outside of the super mega 4 lb. bag of the afore mentioned melt-in-your-mouths that is out of kid reach.

I tried a search of ecofriendly Halloween candy and came up with lots of Fair Trade and organic options that, while better on the whole, made the blood pressure of my inner tightwad start to rise and didn't solve my packaging problem. I also searched for Trick or Treat alternatives and got many good suggestions for needless junk that would ultimately create even more trash and cost more, as well. The one idea that fit my bill was to give out change, but I had flashbacks to birthday parties when my mom would give out pennies for the game prizes and I tried to envision how much the disappointment of child faces in 1984 would rise in the year 2009. Maybe not.
Of course, I would love to put out a big plate of homemade baked goods or even some of the Halloween molded chocolates that the kids and I always make, but I hear the voices of my youth saying things like "razor blades" and "cocaine" and it makes me wonder if anyone would let their kids take them. In reality, the treats should be individually wrapped to keep things sanitary. Could I get away with wrapping up my new little Pumpkin Whoopie Pie gems? Although this would be some waste, at least I would feel better about what was wrapped inside. I may take a bus stop survey and see what people think. I don't mind being different and I think a lot of kids would appreciate the change, but you never know. Maybe a move like that would finally put me in the "crazy lady" category. I could live with that. I'm not so sure about my kids, though. I'll have to pitch it.

Falling In Love

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John can keep summer lovin'. For me, it's all about Fall. Although I have grown more fond of the dog days since I became a gardener, I remain an Autumn girl at heart. It is fairly easy to appreciate Fall when you are from New England. It is a season that touches all of your senses. A description of fall reads like some wine label; full-bodied, a wonderful aroma. It has notes of the upcoming Holidays with just a hint of the waning days of August. It also gets better with age. Now that I am an adult, and even more so a mother, I have a new appreciation for "back to school". Fall has the promise of quiet moments and routines and strict bedtimes. Fall is a mothers best friend.
More than anything, I love Fall food. You can fire up the oven without thinking about the sweat pooling in your bra. You can make heavy, comforting meals that are simple and satisfying. Things are still coming in from the garden, but you don't have the hassle of rapid weed growth and insect control and scorching sun. The onset of Autumn always motivates me in the kitchen and I bust out some of my best recipes. I have four words for you. Pumpkin. Chocolate. Chip. Cookies. Wipe your drool and get out your mixing bowl. You may have to run to the store for a can of pumpkin, but it will be so worth it.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies*

2 cups sugar                            2 eggs
4 cups flour                             1 can pumpkin (15 oz)
4 tsp baking powder               1 cup veg. oil
2 tsp baking soda                    2 Tbsp milk
1 tsp cinnamon                        2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp salt                                 12 oz chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all the dry ingredients then mix in the wet, adding the chocolate chips last. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto greased cooking sheets a few inches apart. Bake about 10-12 min. They will look a bit soft and undercooked at first. Wait a minute or two then remove them to a cooling rack. These are a very cakey and filling cookie, but they will get gobbled right up.

*This recipe was given to me many years ago by one of the women I can credit with my Domestic Goddess Transformation. Margie "Gorgeous" Brennan is an amazing mother of seven who, among other things, really turned me on to the essential nature of homemaking skills in the quest for a frugal life. Cue "Wind Beneath My Wings".

Canned pumpkin is on my seasonal pantry list, but I always manage to have some leftover from winter. As soon as September hits, the little cans of pumpkin mush start calling to me, "Use me. Love me. EAT ME." This year I only was able to get one smallish pumpkin to grow in my garden and it was not of the edible variety. Next year I will absolutely be pursuing pie pumpkins in the hopes of making  these delightful treats even more satisfying. In  the meantime, I am continuing to expand my pumpkin recipe repertoire and decided to try Pumpkin Whoopie Pies. I mean, who doesn't love whoopie pies. First off all, any excuse to throw the word "whoopie" into polite conversation must be taken advantage of and "pie" is always a good time. So put that together with some pumpkin and you have the potential for a frenzy of Fall fun. I checked out a ton of recipes online and finally decided to try the one posted on Martha Stewarts website. I wanted to do one with a cream cheese based filling rather than the Fluff I typically use. I usually find Martha's recipes overly complicated, but this one was pretty straightforward. I linked it rather than post it because I will need to do a bit more experimentation before I decide if it's the one for me. However, I can report that 5 out of 5 Ecocheapo family members ate more than one tonight and already have dibs on some for tomorrow. I may have just found my new Autumn lovah.               


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Good to the last pop

I don't know about the rest of the country, but for New Englanders, this was not a banner garden year. Summer didn't even get started until July and was over by mid-August. The deluge of rain that was the month of June caused my tomatoes to get a fungus, my strawberries to drown and, in general, got everything off to a soggy start. So what successes I did have, I really tried to savor. By far, one of my best crops this year was jalapeno peppers.

In our first garden season, I grew one small, hot pepper plant. I can't recall the variety and I put it in quite late to replace something I had to pull so I only got a few fruits before it quit on me. This year, I decided to put in six jalapeno plants and see how they would do. Little did I know that every one of those would take off and begin to shower me with lovely, green goodies. Supposedly, if you leave them on the plant they will turn red and continue to get hotter, but ours never made it that long and since we are feeding three youngsters with these, we didn't want to trip the oral fire alarm.
Yesterday, I had to finally admit that it is too cold and getting too dark for my spicy babies to produce much more so I harvested the remaining peppers and set about making my last batch of Homemade Jalapeno Poppers. We are huge popper fans and now that we have grown and consumed our own we have sworn off the frozen turds we used to pick up at Sam's Club.
Now that it is October, you may not have access to a quantity of fresh jalapenos that hasn't traveled many miles to get here, but maybe this will wet your appetite and get you thinking about cultivating your own hot beauty patch next year.

* A recipe disclaimer - With the exception of baked goods, I rarely follow a recipe exactly. I usually look at one or two recipes for something and then tweak it to suit my culinary style and limitations. So in the case of the poppers, this is just a guide. Experiment and see what works for you.

Jalapeno Poppers

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
two handfuls shredded cheddar cheese
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp cilantro (fresh chopped is awesome, but dried works fine too)
1 cup flour
5 eggs
a squirt of lime juice
2 cups bread crumbs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
approx 15 -20 fresh jalapenos
vegetable oil for frying
ranch dressing or salsa and sour cream mixed together for dipping

Start by prepping your peppers. Slice of the top and then scoop out the guts. I use a small corer that looks a bit like a peeler. A paring knife would work too. BE CAREFUL not to touch your eyes, pick your nose, etc. until you have washed your hands thoroughly Those pepper innards are hot! After cleaning them, rinse them inside and out to get out even more seeds. A few remaining is fine and will spice it up a bit more.
Next, get your filling ready. Combine the cream cheese, cheddar, cumin and cilantro and mix well.
Now prep your breading station. You'll need three bowls. In the first put the flour. Then beat the eggs and the lime juice together in the second one. Lastly combine the bread crumbs and salt and pepper.
To fill the poppers, slice them in half length wise and then use a knife (I like a small butter knife) to smear filling into each side. Put the halves back together and give them a little press. Go around with your knife and wipe off any filling that has squeezed out. Resist the temptation to cut all the peppers first. I did that and then had a heck of a time matching the halves back up.
Once all the peppers have been filled, you can begin breading. The following process should give you a nice coating that will hold up during frying.
Step 1 Flour
Step 2 Egg
Step 3 Bread crumbs
Step 4 Egg
Step 5 Bread crumbs
Heat about 1-2 inches of oil in a deep sided pan until a few drops of water sprinkled in the oil start to sizzle. Carefully place the poppers into the pan and cook 3-4 minutes or until browned and then turn them over. I like to turn the heat down a bit to give the peppers more time to soften without burning the outside. Remove with a slotted spoon or spatula onto a paper towel to drain. Once all the poppers are cooked, remove them to a plate, serve with dip of your choice and prepare for the WOW factor.



I will really miss these over the winter months. But every successful meal that I produce using the bounty from my garden only makes me want to plan more ways to bring my favorite ingredients to life in my own backyard. Whether you have acres or inches, there is something that you can grow. In patches or pots, maybe jalapenos will be "popping" up for you in the not so distant future.



Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gave me the boot

Warning: This post contains information regarding an unbelievably handy spouse. Don't be mad. I can lend him out for a small fee.

I've said it before and I'll say it again; the only negative about raising chickens is the unavoidable poop problems. It is everywhere and it is squishy. Did you know that every tenth chicken poop is liquidy? I know you can finally rest easy now that you have that little image in your head. This Power of Ten Juice shoots out and furthers the mess in the run. I guess I shouldn't complain too much because it does make for killer compost.
So the golden chicken rule at our house is that you can NOT go into the chicken run with shoes on that will ever step into my house. For poop wading we all have wellies and they stay outside or in the garage. Well, the garage is located on the opposite side of the house from the coop so we just take our boots off and leave them on the deck before we come in. It's a convenient place to get them on and off, except when it rains. Then you go to throw on your boots and get that extra little love of having your footwear be nasty inside and out.

So after watching me make a hideous face as I put my piggy toes into rainfilled shitboots for the umpteenth time the other day, David decided to take action. That night he brought home the best gift an ecocheapo woman could ever receive - an upside down boot holder made entirely out of repurposed materials! I know, you can't believe how lucky I am. I am getting choked up again.




So this little creative beauty has solved our problem. We had some PVC lying around from when we had to move the coop across the yard like ancient Egyptians rolling stones. The wood is all scrap left over from other projects. It took David's creative spark to put them together in order to conquer the wet boot crisis.

The thing that gets me, though, is that just a few, short years ago he would probably not have even kept these materials and he sure as hell wouldn't have been into getting chickens. I am rubbing off on him. I am molding him into a Repsycholer like myself. My evil plan is coming together. After 11 years of marriage, it's about damn time.

So I love Love LOVE my new boot rack. I am running around yelling at everyone who doesn't immediately put their boots on it. I don't even mind that every morning when I go to get chicken shoes on, I am smiled up at by a big squishy poop footprint.

A Quick Eco Oxymoron


Why are the organic bananas the ones that have to come wrapped in nasty plastic? So you want me to pay twice as much AND create more garbage? No thank you. Nature gave them their own little wrappers for a reason. I feel myself becoming more willing to phase these little tropical gems out of our diet altogether.             

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

You might be an ecocheapo...

...if you wouldn't even consider calling a bottle of something "used up" until it has spent two weeks turned upside down to get every last drop.
...if one of your child's first words was "rip-off".
...if you hoard frozen juice lids and egg cartons and occasionally find a use for them.
...if you have bought underwear at a yard sale.
...if you give someone a second hand gift and proudly tell them how little you paid for it.
...if you have ever hung your washed plastic baggies out to dry on your clothesline.
...if you even have a clothesline.
...if you wash your plastic baggies.
...if you have ever gone to a party, noticed their was no recycling bin, and offered to take all the cans and bottles home.
...if you have given someone something in a zip loc bag and asked "If you aren't going to reuse that can you give it back?"
...if you consider the word "disposable" to be offensive.
...if you have ever stood in a grocery aisle and engaged a four year old in a discussion about unit pricing.
...if your kids announce that you won't buy Cheese Sticks because "she can just cut the cheese!" to everyone within earshot.
...if you find any of the above only moderately embarrassing or unreasonable because your wallet and your world are worth it!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Sharing Place

Use the comment option below to pass on ecocheapo ideas, recipes, tips, etc. This is a learning and growing forum and your input is so valuable to all of us. One humans daily routine is another's epiphany. I may also be featuring your shared stuff in the Idea Exchange or you may inspire a particular post. By submitting a comment here you acknowledge that your idea may be publicly viewed and may be used on this site. If used in the Idea Exchange I will give credit for the submission. Thanks for sharing!

What the cluck?



There are typically two reactions that we get when we tell people that we have chickens -  1) "Oh that is so cool! I have always wanted chickens." or 2)"Why???". The second is accompanied by a bewildered look of disgust. Those people will usually listen politely while we explain our poultry endeavor, but will never quite get why we would go to all this trouble when there are perfectly good eggs in the case at the supermarket. If you are a #1 then I hope that chronicling my eggventures may give you some Inspiraction (a phrase I coined many moons ago which means to inspire to action ) towards starting your own backyard flock. If you are a #2 I invite you to watch in semi-horror as we discuss some fowl things and who knows, you might just find yourself in the mood for a good cluck.
We first began to think about getting chickens last winter. We went and visited our neighbors flock, did a ton of research, daydreamed, planned and waited. When springtime came I was raring to go and David realized he was not getting out of this. So I became the researcher and David was to build the coop. He is VERY handy like that so I do have an advantage there. We brought home our eight, day old, New   Hampshire (that's the breed) chicks at the end of April and we were off. They started out in a plastic bin in Davids' office which they quickly outgrew and were moved to an old dog crate and ultimately into the garage in a refrigerator box. The most invaluable resource to us throughout all the chicken phases has been http://www.backyardchickens.com/  (BYC). Even if you don't want chickens, go there. You will learn some awesome stuff. They have a zillion examples of coops from tiny city dwellings to full scale barns. In fact, our coop won an Honorable Mention in the Summer Coop Design Contest. You can view our page here. The BYC Message Board has information on any poultry topic imaginable and if you can't find what you are looking for you can post a question and someone knowledgeable will give you info. So if you are even toying with the idea of getting chickens, start there. I also took a class on Chicken Husbandry from Yellow House Farm. That gave me a great overview and an up close look at a professional farm operation.

So all went well as the chicks were growing and we eventually decided to turn an old shed from our property into the coop. It now resides next to the garden and is a fixture of our everyday lives. Getting eggs is only one of the reasons why we chose to raise chickens. This is one instance where cost cutting was not a primary objective. These chickens would have to be dropping golden eggs to offset the cost of setting them up and keeping them fed. Our main motivation was to further our efforts at a sustainable lifestyle and to continue to connect our children with the origins of our food. Much like our garden, it gives us and them an opportunity to be involved in every stage of our food life. It is a chance to take on responsibility and to care for another living thing. The kids assist in almost all of the chicken chores, their favorite being egg collecting. Somehow I always get stuck with the poop jobs. This you should know - they don't have a phrase called "chicken shit" for nothing. These babies are poop MACHINES. They poop anywhere and everywhere and it is just part of life with chickens. However, it does not smell terribly and there are lots of ways to keep it under control. Just know that at some point you will come into contact with fowl feces. That's all I'm sayin'.
Other than the poo, I can't think of a downside. It is really easier than I thought it would be and chickens are great therapy. There's a way to save money. Skip the shrink and just get chickens. I don't care how good your psychiatrist is, he ain't gonna drop breakfast out his bum.

We are now nearly six months into this little project and about half our chickens are laying. We get three or four eggs per day and, hopefully, the others will start soon. If not, those will go the way of the crock pot next spring to make room for some more. Yes (gasp of horror), we are planning to eat our chickens at some point. We are not vegetarians and thus it is part of our life to eat animals. We have bought chicken from local farms, but unfortunately we can not afford to do this for 100% of our meat meals right now. In the not so distant future we would like to raise our own meat birds. In the meantime, the reality is that when our  chickens stop laying we will humanely kill them and they will feed us in a different way. These birds live a seriously sweet existence compared to their factory cousins so when it is time for lights out, I will know that they have had a great life. If you are going to consume meat then you need to accept that it comes from an animal. Our culture has been separated from this fact for far too long. Chicken keeping is making a comeback all over the country. Maybe it will make its way into your backyard.

Monday, October 5, 2009

You down wit DMP?

On our first night in our first apartment some 12 years ago, future hubby and I went to prepare dinner and it became clear that neither of us had a clue how to do anything related to running a household. My mother had bought us some groceries to get us started and among those was a boxed rice mix. I read the directions and, to my horror, they wanted me to let this mix simmer. "What the hell does simmer mean?" I called to the other end of the apartment ten feet away. David came up short so I called my mother and posed the question. She knew, but let us just say right now, and I will preface it by saying "I love you, Mom. You are perfect and amazing.", but my mother is NOT a domestic diva. She cooked, but didn't particularly like to. She cleaned, but it was not her forte. She was a lovah not a Martha. So I did not grow up under the tutelage of a culinary master. I had zero SKILLZ.
I did however, have the benefit of a cheapskate for a father. Seriously, a tried and true, argue over a 10 cent overcharge, return a hamburger to McDonalds, price haggling, use it till it wears out, no name brand EVER (think Joan Crawford sans hanger), tightwad. So this is the foundation for all my learning. This was the bag into which I would put all my tricks. That is where I am coming from and is where I will introduce one of  the backbones of our household success - Domestic Management Policies (henceforth known as DMP).  I'm a sucker for a good acronym. I'm cool like that. But really I use strategies rather than a strict set of rules to guide my routines and decisions. So I will, from time to time, post things under this category that go into some of these techniques and discoveries.
The first one I would like to do a post on is Keeping It Stocked. In my cupboards are things that will ALWAYS be there. As soon as I am running low or out it goes on the list. I keep backups of some of these things. These are the items from which I know I can make a plethora of meals without thinking about whether or not I have the right ingredients. When deciding if I want to try a new recipe, I really won't consider it if it needs more than one item that is not on the regular Stock list. So I will be working to get this inventory together which will include spices and perishables, as well as dry and canned goods. It will also be a reference so that when I post recipes they can be cross-referenced to see if all the ingredients are in the pantry.
We'll see how it goes. I have been wanting to compile this list for a long time. I am putting it out into the virtual world now so that I will feel compelled to get it done. Like Salt 'n Pepa, I work best under pressure. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Good Night Eggplant

Today was one of those exhaustingly satisfying days where you feel like you did everything you were supposed to do. I started the day by getting up early (for a Sunday) and then fixed a supa dupa breakfast. On the menu was waffles with strawberries and whipped cream, scrambled eggs (from our hens with several double yolkers in the mix), sausage, hashbrowns and fried apples from the ones we picked a few weeks ago. After we had sufficiently stuffed ourselves, I posed the question "Imagine how much we could get done if we didn't turn the TV on all day?" oh, and "How about we all work outside all day and then this afternoon we will come in and watch a movie together?" Well, shocker, they all agreed. Hallelujah. Obviously some sort of body snatchers were here in the night, but I am not complaining.

So we got our acts together and headed outside. I hung laundry on the line while David finished up his last few punch list items on the chicken coop - got the timer on the light, buried the electrical line and put in some more vents. This meant that the chickens got let out to free range early since they are not happy ladies when Big Daddy is messing around in their house. I think they feel he is a bear. I might too if I were them. They couldn't have been too upset though because we still got 4 eggs today and hopefully the light will get the rest of their fowl butts in gear. I want to be drowning in eggs. I want to have egg nightmares and start saying "Dear God, make them stop!" David also mentioned that he wants to build another coop next spring and get more chickens. Maybe some meat birds. He may have just been trying to sweet talk me, but it's workin'.

On to the garden where we finally got all the dead tomato plants and the stakes taken out. We harvested my lone pumpkin, of which I am very proud, and cut back the strawberry bed. We also cut down the corn stalks and made them into a decorative bunch for the mailbox post, took out some of the eggplants and peppers that seem to be kaput, thinned some more carrots, tied up the peas a bit more and generally cleaned up all the beds. So now what we still have growing is:
carrots
green peppers
peas
yellow peppers
beets
jalapeno peppers
swiss chard
sage
spinach
oregano
bush beans
onions
radishes

Once everything is in I will take stock and give my summary on what worked and what didn't and what we would like to do for next year. Considering this is only our second season with the garden and it is HUGE and we have no clue what we are doing, I think we have fared pretty well. We have kept ourselves flush with produce all season and learned so much. Plus, we are so happy we decided to put in some fall crops this year. Our first season was long over by now so still having plenty to harvest is really exciting.

Even though I have a bit of a purple thumb (not black, but certainly not green) I love the garden. I love getting my hands in the dirt. I love seeing things progress. I LOVE like a crazy loon how into it the kids get. They loved picking up all the bad tomatoes today and squishing them. They will eat anything if I say it's from the garden. Here's a piece of dog doo. It's from the garden. Yummy! You're the best mom!

So after all the garden action was over, we set out the pallets to begin stacking our cord wood this week. We did a bit more tidying up around the yard and then David played some wiffle ball with the kids. Jesus, Josie kicks some serious butt. I felt bad because Noah only managed to make contact with a few and Jo hit every one. Caroline didn't quite get the concept of swinging the bat BEFORE the ball has passed you by and now rolled into the poopy mud in the chicken coop (swear to God it happened three times before we smartened up and shut the door to the run). Even though we have always told them that everyone has their strengths and challenges and all that, I could tell Noah was a bit distressed. I don't think it really makes a difference to him that when he was Josie's age he could read and she is just starting to learn the letter sounds. Someday it will make sense to him, though. What his purpose is; what his gifts are; what all of us are here to do and why things are the way they are. I suppose none of us knows that. I guess I don't know entirely what path I am on. But I know that when I am traveling on the one from my door to my garden I feel a sense of rightness and truth and connection and pride and that is what keeps me growing.


PS
The movie that everyone agreed upon as a reward for our hard work was "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown". TV, yes, but A) It's about a kid waiting in a garden and B) it's a throwback to simpler times and genuine human interaction; a rarity nowadays. Good grief.






Friday, October 2, 2009

Lowish Guilt Movie Run

It seems that three is the age when all of my children have been interested in going to a movie in the theater and also the age when I thought they would be ready to sit through one without being one of those kids. So today it is our youngest Carolines' turn and so the first time that I will be taking all three to catch a flick. What occurred to me last night is that this also ups the cost on such an outing. Of course, the movie that was acceptable to all parties is Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs in IMAX 3D so it is an even pricier venture. I almost toyed with the idea of saying "Bag it. We can watch a movie for free here." But going to any movie is a pretty rare treat around here and a First Movie is a milestone.


Since I can't renegotiate the ticket price and matinee discounts of any significance seem to have gone the way of the Drive In, I am definitely smuggling in snacks and drinks. Sometimes I have neglected this step and been sorry when we got there and paid more for food than admission. And let's all just admit it now - movie popcorn sucks nowadays. The only thing worth anything is Non-Pareils. Even the soda tastes nasty to me. Maybe it's that bitter rip-off flavor.



To have an acceptably fun snack substitution I busted out the air popper and filled four, lunch size, brown bags. I know what you are thinking. Those paper bags are now going to be trash since they will be all popcorny on the inside and, therefore, unrecyclable. Is that even a word? Hold on. Let me check... It is! It even has its' own symbol. Who knew?

I am OK with this waste since paper bags are ultimately biodegradable and I have been working out of the same package for well over five years now. I also figure we offset this minimal trashiness because we only buy popcorn kernels and never microwaveable. I decided to add some butter flavored sprinkles this time after some grumbling about how our popcorn doesn't taste like the stuff at the theater. OK success, but I think I might just stick with salt. Butter in spray or powder form skeeves me out. I also packed a small baggies of M & M's for everyone. I buy the 4 lb. bags of those little chocolate pills for purposes of child treats and bribery. I will wash all those baggies later. I am a hardcore baggy washer and you will get a brain full of it soon. Stay tuned for that one. It's one of my specialties. Throw in a few water bottles and my oversize purse and we are ready for stealth snacking.

So I think I've got the cost down as much as possible. Now if I can just stay awake through the move I'll really get my monies worth. Ooh, this just in...the boy wonder has scored Red Sox tickets via Dad and will be making the pilgrimage to Boston with Grammy the Psycho Sox Fan. This outing is getting cheaper by the minute.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Shnack Day

Whether you dread it, tolerate it or live for it, Snack Day is a preschool rite of passage. At least around here anyway where we pay more than good money for this privilage. I have now discovered from friends who live elsewhere that some places have public preK. What??? NH is the last state in the country to get public kindergarten so by the time an idea as novel as free preschool takes hold it will probably be my grandkids who reap the benefits. So for now, we have two of our three kids in preschool which means that the Blessed Festival of Trying to Find Food Other People's Kids Will Eat comes twice as often. Sweet!
I am so not bragging, people seem to think it's some kind of miracle, but my kids will eat almost anything. And tons of it. I don't know if I am just lucky or what, but once when I was on a kindergarten field trip with Noah the hiking guide opened a can of sardines and offered them (I think for a laugh) to the kids and who is the one little guy who steps up and eats one? Mine. And he loved it. The other parents didn't know whether to applaud or puke. But I digress.
Back to the snackipoos. It so happened that this week, both girls came home with the snack basket and we had SD back to back. My goal with snack day is to come up with something cheap, nutritious and with zero waste. I do NOT do squeezy yogurt or fruit snacks or juice boxes. I really don't buy anything individually wrapped. I do, however, bake. So I often do minimuffins with whatever needs using up, like bananas. My all time favorite snack day treat though, is Homemade Chewy Granola Bars. They are like little sticks of heaven. What I really love is that most people have never seen a granola bar that didn't come wrapped in its' own little piece of garbage.
So here is the recipe and I do hope you'll try it.

Homemade Chewy Granola Bars

4 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup honey or agave
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/3 packed brown sugar
1 cup add ins (raisins, dried fruit, choc. chips, etc.)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix all ingredients except add ins. I usually end up mixing it by hand. A little messy but does the best job. Then mix in the add ins of your choice. Press the mixture very firmly into a greased 9 x 13 pan. I do sometimes use a small piece of wax paper to press the mixture in and that is trash, but I have also had good success with a small greased roller or even my hands. Bake 20-25 min. Let cool completely then cut into bars. This makes about 16 good sized bars. Remove them carefully from the pan and store in an airtight container.

So the next time you are attacked by snack, give it a try. Let me know how it turns out. Once you have this snack, you'll never go back.