Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Laundry Day

In an effort to use less electricity, I never put my laundry in the dryer. I prefer the feeling of air-dried clothes anyway, so mine get strung around the apartment, over the tops of doors and the backs of chairs, and hung on my collapsible wooden clothesrack, which is now in a permanent state of wonky semi-collapse. It's really on its last legs and will have to be repurposed soon, probably as a trellis.

In the reverse, here's the scrap cedar that Matt made my trellis from, being put to another use while it was still sitting around my apartment:

I would love to have an outdoor clothesline, but as I share my small backyard with three other apartments it does not really seem feasible at the moment. I look forward to the day when I have a house with a yard of my own, with a big clothesline or one of those umbrella-shaped clothes trees, and maybe a drying rack above the stove, which can be lifted and lowered by a pulley system.

Though sometimes my apartment feels a little cluttered with clothes strung about everywhere to dry, I feel good about cutting down on my power usage, and it also helps me feel domestic in the "old-fashioned" way that I love.

What is your (current and/or ideal) clothes-drying arrangement?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

First harvest!

Picked from my garden today, April 25th. A small first harvest, but a delicious one!

Keeping a Garden Journal

I am no gardening expert, but have had a lot of experience in and around gardens of various shapes and sizes, and here's one piece of advice I'd give to any gardener: keep a garden journal. Especially if you are planting a garden every year, it will help you track which varieties of vegetables and flowers your really liked, what did well in your climate/soil/sun/shade conditions and what didn't, and will help you embrace your failures and learn from your mistakes.

If your garden is more than a couple raised beds, a key part of your garden journal should be a map of your garden each year. If you're like me and don't account for pathways through your garden, keeping straight what is planted where is a necessity!
This map was just ideas and brainstorming.

A map will also help you rotate crops, so you don't plant the same thing in the same place several years running and exhaust the soil. My parents have a large garden, so they use a standard spiral notebook in which they always draw the layout of each year's garden, and write in the varieties of things that are difficult to tag- potatoes, tomatoes, corn, squash. They can also look at previous years' maps and see where they need to let the soil rest or plant cover crops the next year.

Mapping out a garden in advance is helpful if you have a small garden space but want to fit a lot in, like me. I actually took a measuring tape out to the garden and made a scale drawing of my space, and worked with the layout until I was able to fit everything in with the amount of space it needed to grow in.

My garden, and thus my journal, are a bit more modest than my parents'. I had a spare moleskin notebook hanging around so it got co-opted for garden use. It holds lists where I brainstormed what vegetables and varieties I wanted to grow, calculations for the cost of all the seeds I wanted to order, various drafts of garden layout, supplies I would need to find or buy, a rough planting schedule for the season, and notes/journaling as I keep track of the progress of my garden and starts.

I will also attempt to track the vegetable yield from my garden this year, mostly for curiosity's sake, to see how much money I saved by not buying my veggies at the store.

Some snippets from this year's journal:

"3/12/10. Potatoes bought today from Urban Farm Store, $3.95/lb. Russ. Banana, Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, Red Norland."

"3/13/10. Planted out cabbage starts. Going to try and rig up a cover for cabb. w/old mesh curtain. Julie grew huge cabbages here last yr, so not overly worried @ pests though. 52 degrees F according to Wunderground, forcasted low of 40F. Supposed to be 56F and 61F next 2 days, so good news and warmer lows too."

"3/20. All replanting of peps + toms sprouted except Giant Marconis. Now I know- loose, light soil! Fast germination."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spring Budgeting Update

I blogged here in January about starting a real budget rather than just "curbing my spending," since that wasn't working. And guess what? Budgeting works! I adapted my budget system from the cash-only system described at Down to Earth here.

After tracking my spending for a couple months, I calculated how much I was spending outside of rent and utilities--between $450 and $500 per month. So I cut that figure down to $400 and decided that was how much I would allow myself every month for spending on food, entertainment, and of course all the random things like toilet paper and shampoo. I also wanted to keep my credit rolling, but wanted to put a limit on how much I would put on my credit card every month. I always pay off my credit card completely, but decided to spend only cash for the first month (February). So I paid off the entirety of my credit card balance and let a month go by without putting a single cent on my card. I withdrew $400 from my checking account at the beginning of the month and that's what I spent. I do not set aside certain amounts for entertainment, groceries, etc, and that works for me. Other people might need to put aside money for each of these categories, but I just evaluate as I go, and it works well for my life. I had around $5 left over at the end of February, which I deposited into my savings account (yes, the bank teller thought I was nuts). It strikes me now that starting this budget on the shortest month of the year was an interesting, if unintentional move!

I am now still operating on $400 per month, $250 in cash and $150 on my credit card. I find that setting a limit on my credit card spending also helps me spend less- it's hard to hit exactly $150 so the total usually hovers around $140!

By the way, if you are an REI member or want to be, I will put a plug in here for the REI Visa card, I don't usually promote things like that, but their customer service has been impeccable and you will receive rebates from all purchases, and these will end up in your REI dividend, which equals free stuff! My caveat to this is, if you use a credit card, please please try to pay it off as soon as possible. Credit card companies make a killing off of people who make only the minimum payment. Please pay attention to that. Happily, there are new laws in affect now that are here to help raise awareness about the treachery of credit card interest rates! If you look on your next credit card statement, you should see a warning and a calculation showing how much extra you will pay over the next couple years if you only pay the minimum payment each month. Please be aware and save yourself some grief and money. If you don't think you can pay off what you put on your card every month, than I suggest going with the cash only system until you feel like you get your spending to a manageable place. It's amazing what you can live without without your quality of life decreasing.

I was worried that budgeting like this would put a lot of constraints on me, but I don't really find myself wanting anything extra. If I know I have a big purchase coming up (e.g. buying a dress for my brother's wedding) then I stock up on groceries in advance and pay for that big purchase within my budget. I have also been helped along by the fact that Matt chips in for food costs since he's at my house so often, by the Chinook Book coupons, and Bernard at Full of Life Farm giving a free dozen eggs to any customer who filled out a survey about his products this month! We only go out to eat a couple times a month, and our fallback for dinner out is the taquería two blocks from my house, where tacos are $1.50 apiece.

The only obstacle I have run into that did not fall into my budgeted spending was taxes (once again, I screwed up my W-4 this year and did not have enough withheld, so had to pay a big chunk to the fed all at once). Also, I recently decided to begin contributing regularly to my IRA which I had set up at my previous job. I have never actually contributed to it, but that company did. Now I am planning to deposit $25 per month. It's not much, but it is what I can afford right now, it will add up, and will create larger interest. It's never too early to start saving for retirement, I suppose, and I might as well contribute while I am steadily employed! I'll put in another plug here as well, for Calvert investments. While I am no investment expert (whoa. Far from it.), I am pleased that the Calvert Group invests in socially and environmentally responsible companies.

I am very satisfied with my budgeting  and pleased that it actually works, and here's the biggest reason: I am managing to put $500 into my savings account every month now!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Squashes and Flowers and Herbs, Oh My!

SO much progress in the garden these days! My elderly neighbor wandered over to the back fence a few days ago as I was thinning my kale and bok choy, and commented, "You're planting things awfully early!" Why, yes I am. I may be jumping the gun a little, but I'm so excited to have a garden that I'm attempting to push our long growing season to the max. So far everything is doing very well, and we're past the last frost date so hopefully that danger is out of the picture. The only things left inside under the lights now are my tomatoes and peppers.
Teenage tomatoes under the lights. 
(click on images to enlarge)

They won't go out into the garden until the soil is good and warm. If the weather really perks up, I might put the biggest tomatoes out in the first couple weeks of May. Peppers are more finicky and will need to wait until it's really warm.

The weather was gorgeous this last weekend, and I spent hours and hours planting, tilling, thinning, and repotting.
Some of my starts graduating to larger homes. 

I planted out all my flower starts into the garden: cosmos, pansies, marigolds, and coreopsis. They are all loving being out in the dirt and growing speedily already! All of my tomatoes and peppers have moved into 1-gallon pots until they are transplanted into the garden. With so many larger pots, I ran out of room under the lights so decided to plant out my winter squash starts. Definitely a little early there, but the "toms and peps" get priority for the lights, in my hierarchy of vegetables.

I planned my garden so that I would interplant squash and corn, in the far western end of the garden bed, next to the compost bin (on the other side of Julie's section of the garden plot). This is my biggest garden success so far: this piece of garden was hard packed clay dirt and gravel in October, and I stacked multiple layers of dead leaves and compost on it for the winter. I tilled it all up on Sunday, and it is now delicious loose black dirt!
Albeit with some gravel mixed in, but I think corn and squash will do well in this soil. I planted my four squash plants into it and they seem very happy- three "Sunshine" and one "Queensland Blue," an heirloom variety. My parents advised me that these might grow better with some extra warmth, so after work yesterday I scrounged around and made four little housings for them, out of old yard debris bags and plastic milk jugs filled with water. The theory here being that the jugs of water will collect heat from sunlight and radiate it into the soil and to the plants, and hopefully the thick paper will help retain some of the warmth around the plants. Clear plastic coverings would be ideal, but I am working with what I have, so this is the best I could come up with. I'll let you know if it works!

Squash progress in action:

On Saturday afternoon I also bought some herb starts and planted them out- spearmint (for iced tea this summer!), golden oregano, lemon thyme, and parsley. I also discovered an italian parsley plant near the back fence that Julie must have planted last year. Also a big clump of chives; if you want to get technical, the first harvest from this year's garden was the chives Matt and I had on our mashed potatoes last night. Delicious!
 Cukes on the windowsill.
View of my growing garden. The little hut over the cabbages is made
from a secondhand mesh shower curtain.

My good friend Sarah came over on Sunday afternoon and we planted nasturtiums, chard ("Bright Lights"), cilantro, feverfew, sweet peas, and lettuce ("Flashy Trout Back"). The wrought metal from my old screen door has been repurposed into a trellis for the vining nasturtiums, and on Saturday afternoon Matt put together a beautiful trellis from scrap cedar and set it up against the wall under my bedroom window.
This is where I will plant scarlet runner beans from my mom's garden. They grow ridiculously tall and are lovely plants with bright red flowers and huge bean pods. Plus, they emphasize a feeling of home for me.

 With my red geraniums in their hanging pots, it's really starting to look like summer out back!

My blog mentioned on Down to Earth!

Rhonda at Down to Earth, one of my very favorite blogs, has given my little blog a mention in her post yesterday about Simple Living in Your 20s! Check it out here. I'm thrilled!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New Favorite Recipes

I thought I’d share a couple of new recipes that I’ve discovered and adore. Coincidentally, pictures of the final products have been featured in a couple of recent posts...

Sauteed Cod with Herbs and Scallions
From How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

We ate it with couscous and sauteed spinach.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been trying to eat more fish, and this has proved a very simple and delicious way of cooking fish, along with some tasty green onions and herbs, which boil down into a delicious greasy (but happy-greasy) sauce. I modified the recipe only slightly, and used only tarragon, the second time I made it adding a very small amount of thyme. I loved the flavor of tarragon with the scallions and lemon, I think it is a great combination. But here is the original recipe:

Time: 20 minutes

About 1/2 cup flour
About 1/2 cup cornmeal
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 tsp cayenne, or to taste (optional, but tasty!)
4 Tbsp olive oil
4 small cod steaks or fillets, 4-6 oz. each, 3/4 to 1 inch thick
3 tablespoons minced dill (I used dried tarragon)
3 tablespoons minced scallions (I minced the green scallion tops, and left the bottom 4-5 inches of 4 scallions whole and put them in the pan that way)
3/4 cup white wine, stock (fish, vegetable, or chicken) or water

Mix flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper and cayenne. Heat a large skillet over medium heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the olive oil to the pan. When it is hot, dredge each piece of fish in the flour mixture and place them in the skillet. Cook over medium high heat, rotating them so they brown evenly, turning them after about 4 minutes. They will be done, or near, after 7 or 8 minutes of cooking. Check for doneness by peeking between the layers of flesh with a thin knife. There should be little to no translucence left, and the knife should meet little resistance. Remove the fish and keep it warm. Add the herbs and scallions to the pan, and more olive oil if needed. Cook, stirring, over medium heat for about one minute.
Add the wine, stock or water and stir while you let most of it bubble away. It will cook down into a thicker sauce. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve with lemon wedges.

Pineapple Chicken Curry

I tore this recipe out of an Elle Home magazine one night at Matt’s mom’s place, because the picture of it looked so good. It turned out to be the best curry I’ve ever made, and it came out looking exactly like the picture in the magazine! I had never cooked with Madras curry before, and I love it! Madras curry has a sweeter, broader flavor than standard curry powder. It is spicy, but not in a fiery way. It goes really well with the pineapple. This recipe sounds very involved, but it actually moves pretty fast, especially with two people working on it. I used Patak’s Madras curry paste, using the same measurements as are given for the curry powder. I also didn't use the coconut, as I have an aversion to shredded coconut. I'm all about the coconut milk though!

Also, I cut all the amounts in half and it still was a ton of food!

1 1/2 Tbsp Madras curry powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground ginger
4 large chicken legs, skin on, legs and thighs separated
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup coconut flakes
1/2 cup pineapple juice
2 cans (13.5 oz each) coconut milk
1 cup chicken stock or broth
1 cinnamon stick
4 medium sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 bunch cilantro, leaves only, roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine the spices in a small bowl. In a shallow dish, coat the chicken with 2 tbsp olive oil and half the spices, and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate, covered or in a Ziploc bag, for 2 hours, chilled. Preheat oven to 325 F. Warm the remaining olive oil in a large oven-safe pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the legs and thighs to the pan in a single layer (you may need to do this in batches) and brown on both sides, allowing the spices to toast and become fragrant; remove and set aside. Saute the pineapple, garlic, and most of the coconut flakes, stirring, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Add the pineapple juice, coconut milk, chicken stock, cinnamon stick, remaining spices, and sweet potatoes; stir to combine. Arrange the chicken evenly on top. Bring to a simmer, then transfer to the oven, uncovered.
Braise for 45 minutes, basting the chicken twice. Remove the cinnamon stick and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve on top of curried rice, garnishing with coconut flakes and cilantro.

Curried Rice
1 cup jasmine rice
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Madras curry powder or paste

Wash rice several times until water runs clear, then drain. Pour water, salt, and curry powder* into a 2 quart saucepan and cook, covered, until rice is tender and water is absorbed. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.

*If using curry paste, stir it into the water to let it dissolve, then add rice.

Serving suggestion: Add one full-length womens' surfing film.

There has also been some interest in my (i.e. my dad's) recipe for homemade tortillas. I am a huge advocate of homemade tortillas, they taste way better than store-bought ones, have more substance, and no preservatives of course. Also, they only have two ingredients (other than water), which endears them to me even more.

For 10 tortillas:

1 1/2 cup flour (white or whole wheat)
1 1/2 cup masa harina
about 1 1/2 cup water.

Mix the dry stuff, add the water. The dough should not be sticky, but should hold together easily. Form into balls about the size of a large egg, and roll them out between parchment paper, or in a plastic produce bag. Cook on a cast iron skillet if possible, make sure to oil the skillet thinly with olive oil or canola oil. Cook at medium/low heat, pressing on tortilla with the back of a spatula so air pockets form. A tortilla is done cooking when you can see brown heat spots forming.

*Masa harina, or masa, is finely ground corn flour. It is delicious. It is not the same as cornmeal, and cornmeal will not work for tortillas (too much grit). You can also buy maseca, which is advertised as "tortilla flour", and you only need to add water.

Buen provecho!