Saturday, January 13, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Veggie Macaroni and Cheese

It's become a yearly tradition for me and Brian, when we go out to visit his folks for Christmas, to make a trip to the local Half Price Books. This is a chain we don't have out here in Jersey, which is a pity, because it carries books on all manner of topics, along with some new and used CDs and DVDs, at prices well below Barnes and Noble's. Sometimes we come home with an armful of new books, other times we just browse, but it's always an enjoyable outing.

On this occasion, we picked up only one new book for ourselves: the Fix-It and Forget-It Vegetarian Cookbook. Unlike most cookbooks in the Fix-It and Forget-It series, this one isn't limited to recipes for the slow cooker; instead, it boasts "565 Delicious Slow-Cooker, Stove-Top, Oven, and Salad Recipes, plus 50 Suggested Menus"—all of them meatless. And since it includes one whole section devoted solely to vegetables and fruits, I thought it would offer a fertile field of possible Recipes of the Month for 2018.

We decided to start off with a simple one: Veggie Macaroni and Cheese, listed in the pasta section. It's pretty much just a basic baked mac-and-cheese recipe, but with lightly cooked broccoli and cauliflower florets and sliced carrots and celery added to the macaroni before baking. There's also a sautéed onion and a spoonful of Dijon mustard added to the cheese sauce, as well as a sprinkling of paprika on top, which I thought would give the dish a bit more interest than the Kraft packaged variety I grew up with. And since we didn't happen to have any macaroni on hand, we decided to make the dish with penne, which we figured would make it a bit more sophisticated.

When the dish came out of the oven, it certainly looked a lot more appealing than basic macaroni and cheese: a mass of pasta swimming in rich, golden cheese sauce, dotted with colorful veggies, and dusted with russet-brown paprika. Unfortunately, its flavor wasn't quite as impressive. I like pasta with veggies, and I like pasta with cheese sauce, but these two great tastes just didn't taste great together. It seemed like the veggies, which would probably have tasted just fine with the pasta in a simple garlic-and-oil sauce, didn't really harmonize with the mustard-laced cheese sauce. It was perfectly edible, but it just wasn't inspiring. And since fresh cauliflower turns out to be quite expensive to buy in January, it wasn't really the most frugal choice to start off the year, either.

However, trying this dish wasn't a complete waste of time. As it happens, we already have a recipe for a healthier version of macaroni and cheese that we quite like: it also contains cauliflower, but pureed and mixed in with the cheese sauce. This doesn't noticeably affect the flavor, but it makes the sauce extra thick and creamy, as well as giving it a nice nutritional boost. The only problem with the dish is that it's a trifle bland. We usually sprinkle it with a little Penzey's Mural of Flavor to kick the flavor up a notch, but after trying this new recipe, I'm inclined to think that maybe what it really needs is a little mustard stirred into the sauce—and perhaps a dash of paprika on top to give it color and zest. So we'll probably add those modifications the next time we make our usual mac-and-cheese dish, and see if they take it from good to great.

In the meantime, we've already picked out another recipe to try from our new cookbook: Quinoa with Broccoli and Hoisin Sauce. This one looks a lot lighter and healthier, since it has protein-packed quinoa instead of pasta and isn't loaded with cheese. We picked up the ingredients for this today, and if it turns out well, we'll have a new recipe to add to our repertoire of dishes we can serve to gluten-free guests.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Household Hacks: How we're keeping (somewhat) warm

Here on the East Coast—and in many other parts of the country as well—we are now about two weeks into a deep and prolonged cold snap. Ever since Christmas, we have not seen outdoor temperatures over 20 degrees, either here in Jersey or back at my in-laws' place in Indiana. Every day the news reports new record low temperatures somewhere in the country. Meteorologists are amusing themselves by making up new and terrifying terms, like "bomb cyclone," to describe the brutal weather conditions.

In the face of the bitter cold outside, our little boiler is struggling to keep up. Ever since we got home, the thermostat has been set to 68 degrees 24/7 (rather than our usual regimen of 67 by day and 56 by night), and we're still lucky if the indoor temperature ever creeps above 65. So we've been using a variety of tricks to keep ourselves warm. If you're also stuck shivering at home, perhaps some of them will help you as well.

Winter Warmer #1: Layers—lots of layers.

As I type this, I am wearing a total of four layers of clothing: a turtleneck, a pullover, a fleece zip-up that I picked up at Goodwill over Christmas vacation, and my wearable blanket over that. I also have fleece-lined leggings on under my trousers, two pairs of socks under my fuzzy slippers, and a hat. The only part of me I don't have under wraps is my hands, since I can't manage to type with gloves on. (Look, I['ll show you. See what; I[ mean>?")

Winter Warmer #2: Baking.

In the summertime, we tend to choose meals that we can prepare without heating up the kitchen too much. We grill, eat cold salads, or use the Crock-Pot and the pressure cooker, and avoid running the oven as much as possible. During this cold snap, we've switched to the opposite strategy, running the oven as much as possible. In the past week, Brian has baked bread, apple crisp, cookies, and lasagna, and after each recipe he leaves the oven door open to spill as much of that heat into the kitchen as possible.

Winter Warmer #3: The pressure space-heater.

An old trick for warming up the house is to heat up a pot of water on the stove. As it slowly cools, its stored heat will transfer to the air (along with moisture, which will make it feel warmer). The problem is, if the pot stays on the stove, only the kitchen will get noticeably warmer. Brian had the thought that if he could heat a pot and then move it into whichever room we happened to be using, it would serve as a little space heater, radiating warmth in our immediate surroundings. However, he was reluctant to try this with our big stock pot for fear of spilling the water.

The solution he hit on was to use the pressure cooker instead. Every day this week, he has put the pressure cooker on to boil with nothing in it but water. Once it comes up to full pressure, he lets it vent, then moves it to a hot pad atop my desk, where it gently radiates heat as I work. I have to be careful not to touch the hot pot early in the day, but by evening it's completely cool to the touch (although even then, we've found the water inside is still slightly warm). He's also tried setting the hot pot on the coffee table as we watch TV in the evenings, where we can put up our feet next to it.

Winter Warmer #4: Hot tea.

While the pressure-cooker heater is helping to heat my outside, I also warm myself from the inside out by sipping hot tea throughout the day. This may sound confusing if you've heard that sipping hot drinks in hot weather is actually cooling, but as this article from the Guardian explains, that's because their heat stimulates increased sweating (which is why this trick doesn't really work in humid climates). On a day like this, there's no way a cup of tea will be enough to cause sweating, so its warmth will instead stay in your tummy and help you keep your core temperature up. Plus, holding the hot cup helps keep my exposed hands warm.

Winter Warmer #5: Heavy-duty bedding.

Even with all these warm-up tricks, it's a struggle to keep warm during the day. But at night, we have no problems at all. We stay toasty warm with a combination of fleece sheets and a lightweight comforter from IKEA. When we bought this comforter, we hesitated between two different weights; this one, which was labeled as a "cooler" comforter suitable for warm weather, and a mid-weight one that was slightly pricier. We settled on the cheaper one, figuring that we could keep it on the bed year-round without overheating, and in the winter we could always add another blanket to keep warm.

To our surprise, this "cooler" comforter turned out to be very warm indeed—so warm that we have to remove it entirely in summertime, leaving only the empty duvet cover. Maybe in Sweden it would be comfortable all summer long, but definitely not in New Jersey. And even in winter, it's so warm that we haven't needed to put a blanket on the bed since we bought it. If this is IKEA's idea of a warm-weather comforter, I can hardly imagine how warm their cold-weather ones must be.

We'd probably stay warm enough under this comforter even with plain cotton sheets, but there would still be those few minutes of unpleasant chill upon first sliding between them. Even flannel ones have a fairly smooth surface that feels cold to the touch at first. By contrast, our fleece sheets, with their high, fluffy loft, feel as warm as blankets against our skin. Tucked in between these, with our warm sweat pants on and our plush comforter over top, we stay snug as the proverbial bug all night long. The only difficult part is getting out of bed when the alarm goes off.

Fortunately, the cold spell is scheduled to break at last on Tuesday, with temperatures soaring up to a balmy 40 degrees. At that point, we'll be able to venture outside again during the daytime and finally give our boiler a break at night. But I'll be filing away these frugal winter-warmth tricks for future reference, since both extreme lows and extreme highs seem to be part of the new normal.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Buttered cabbage

After getting back from our Indiana trip late Thursday night, Brian and I knew we'd have to hurry to squeeze in a Recipe of the Month for December before it was time to ring in the new year. And with the thermometer stuck well below the freezing point, we weren't too eager to run out and buy any new produce for it.

Fortunately, I was prepared for this possibility. Before we left, I'd noted that we had a half head of cabbage left in the veggie drawer, so I'd hunted through our big green cookbook (How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman) to find something we could make with it. The first recipe that jumped out at me in the index was "Buttered Cabbage," which could hardly have been simpler: boil some cabbage leaves until they're tender, then toss them with melted butter (browned, if you can manage it). Bittman's description said, "For a two-ingredient vegetable dish, this is pretty great," and it wouldn't require us to run out and buy anything. I figured if this dish turned out to be as good as Bittman claimed, it would be an incredibly useful addition to our veggie repertoire; since we tend to have both these ingredients in our fridge at all times, we could whip it up any time we happened to need a green vegetable to round out a meal, rather than just relying on frozen peas. And even if we didn't love it, it would still serve the useful purpose of finishing out our Recipe of the Month selections for 2017. Sold.

So on Friday night, we made this simple cabbage recipe as an accompaniment to some baked potatoes and roasted free-range chicken legs, spiced with Forward! seasoning from Penzey's (part of one of our Christmas presents). And it was...okay. I wouldn't call it great, or even "pretty great," but it was edible.  Cooked for just a few minutes, the cabbage was tender but not mushy, and the brown butter added a little fullness to the flavor, but it was still pretty bland.

As an experiment, we tried sprinkling the cabbage with a blend Brian mixed up of salt and a little more of the Forward! seasoning. As it turned out, this actually perked up the flavor quite a bit. Penzey's describes this blend as an "all-purpose seasoning," blended from pepper, onion, paprika, garlic, and an array of other spices, none of them overpowering; it's a bit like a mild chili powder without the oregano. With a dash of this seasoning layered over top of the browned butter, the cabbage was reasonably flavorful—but it's still not something we'd go out of our way to make. It might serve as an acceptable emergency veggie for those nights when there's not much else available, but I don't think it will become a staple.

And that wraps up our Recipes of the Month for 2017. Fortunately, I've got plenty of new ones to try out in 2018; on our regular annual trip to Half Price Books in Indianapolis, I picked up a copy (for just $7) of the Fix-It and Forget-It Vegetarian Cookbook, which promises "565 Delicious Slow-Cooker, Stove-Top, Oven, and Salad Recipes." The "Vegetables and Fruits" chapter alone contains 92 recipes, so we should have no trouble coming up with new dishes to try in the coming year.

Friday, December 29, 2017

IKEA hack: Cat-safe vase 3.0

One of the first things we had to do after we got our two rambunctious kitties in 2015 was figure out a way to protect our flowers from them. It didn't take us long to figure out that it wasn't enough for the vase to be stable enough to keep the cats from knocking it over; it also had to physically block off their access to the flowers, since anything they could reach would get pulled out and turned into a cat toy/snack. Even if we limited ourselves strictly to cat-safe flowers that wouldn't hurt the kitties if they chose to chew on them, it would kind of defeat the purpose of displaying flowers to make the kitchen look nice if they instead ended up scattered all over the floor.

Our first attempt at a cat-safe vase was a glass canning jar inverted over top of a smaller jar. This experiment showed us that a fully enclosed container wouldn't really work, because water condensed all over the inside and made it nearly impossible to see the flowers underneath. We needed something with a bit of ventilation to allow the flowers to breathe.

Our next attempt, our cat-safe vase 1.0, was a repurposed glass candle chimney from our local thrift shop. We just inverted it over top of a small glass of wildflowers, keeping them out of reach of curious paws while still allowing us to see them (sort of). This arrangement wasn't ideal, since it severely limited the size of the flower bouquet that would fit underneath, but it worked reasonably well for about a year.

Then, after what seemed like a fairly minor tap against a candlestick, the glass shade completely broke. We couldn't find another, so Brian came up with a DIY cat-safe vase using a plain glass vase and a wooden stand with holes that allowed air to circulate from below. This, once again, worked tolerably well, but it still wasn't ideal. For one thing, having the vase inverted over the top tended to cramp the flower arrangements inside, squashing any artistically draped leaves or blossoms against the side of the glass. It was tricky to load and unload it properly, getting the glass centered in exactly the right spot so the vase could fit over top without crushing the flowers. And although it theoretically allowed for some air movement, the inside of the vase still had a tendency to mist up—and after a bunch of flowers had been in there for a week or so, mold would start to form along their foliage. This required us to change the flowers quite a bit more often than we had to when we were using a simple, open vase.

Then, last week, we accompanied Brian's sister's family on a trip to the Indianapolis IKEA and spotted this nifty SINNESRO lantern. It's meant to keep a candle and protected from the wind outdoors, but it occurred to me that it could just as easily protect a small vase of flowers from our inquisitive felines. And since it was designed to provide enough air to keep a candle flame burning, we figured it ought to do a reasonably good job of allowing air to circulate around our flowers. At any rate, for eight bucks, we thought it was worth a try. Even if it didn't work, we could still use the lantern for its intended purpose, either indoors or out on our patio.

As soon as we got home from Indiana, we set up the new the lantern on our kitchen table. Since there are no flowers blooming at this time of year, we just put a little sprig of evergreens in a cup and tucked it inside as a proof of concept.

Right away, it was clear that this lantern had a couple of advantages over the previous cat-safe vase. For one, it was much easier to load and unload, since you could tuck the glass of flowers right inside the glass enclosure instead of having to carefully lower the vase down over top of it. It was also a lot more polished-looking than our makeshift vase with its wooden stand. (Brian had sanded the piece down a little bit to smooth it out and covered over the screws with wood putty, but it was still pretty obvious that it had been cobbled together from plywood scraps.)

So far, the new lantern-vase shows no tendency to fog up inside, but in this extra-cold, dry weather, we can't necessarily read too much into that. We'll have to give it a few days to see whether the greenery inside stays clean and free of mildew, but for now, I'm liking this arrangement very much. And we still have our old cat-safe vase 2.0 available if we decide we want to display some flowers in another location.

So for anyone out there who is looking for a way to keep flowers and cats in the same house, I'd say this ultra-simple IKEA hack is the easiest way to make it work. If you don't happen to have an IKEA store in your neck of the woods, pretty much any candle lantern intended for outdoor use should do just as well, though you might have to pay a bit more for it. A quick online search just turned up several options priced around $12 at stores like Pier 1 and Quick Candles; you can almost surely find something to fit both your taste and your budget.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: The Changing of the Garden

In accordance with our new holiday tradition, Brian and I brought the Fedco Seeds catalogue with us on our long drive out to Indiana to see his family, so we could go over what we'd like to buy for next year's garden.

It looks like we won't be actually replacing too many of varieties this year. Although some crops didn't do very well, they're mostly varieties that we've grown just fine in the past, such as the Marketmore and Cross-Country cucumbers that produced so bountifully in 2016 we were scrambling to try out new cucumber recipes. This year, by contrast, most of the seeds we planted didn't germinate at all, so we had only a few skinny vines and not many cucumbers. We're assuming the problem is simply that the seeds are too old, so we're planning to get more of the same varieties and not try replacing them. The same goes for the basil, which gave us only a skimpy yield during the summer and none at all to preserve for the winter, and the Cascadia snap peas, which gave us a generous crop in 2016 but then mostly failed to come up this year.

Another crop we'll need to buy more of is the King of the Garden lima beans. We neglected to buy any this past year, so we decided to try planting some seeds we'd saved from last year's crop, and most of them didn't come up at all. So at this point, we don't see any reason to mess around with trying to save seeds in the future. Buying them is a lot easier, and the seeds are a lot more reliable—and as long as we're placing an order with Fedco anyway, adding another $1.70 for a packet of lima beans is a negligible expense.

So the only crops we're actually planning to change up are the peppers and tomatoes. Our new pepper varieties this year, Carmen and Gilboa, gave us mixed results. The Carmen, a mild frying pepper, gave us nine good-sized peppers from just one plant—easily outstripping our trusty Jimmy Nardello, which gave us about a dozen peppers from two plants. The Gilboa, by contrast, yielded only one pathetic little green bell pepper all season.

Based on those results, we concluded we should plant at least two of the Carmen peppers next year and ditch the Gilboa. In fact, since Gilboa was about the seventh bell pepper variety we've tried without any significant success, we decided that maybe we should just stop trying to grow bell peppers at all and concentrate on chilis and frying peppers, which tend to do much better. So we combed through the Fedco catalogue and settled on a promising-looking chili pepper called the Czech Black, which is just a trifle milder than a jalapeño. We're also planning to try again to grow the Klari Baby Cheese peppers, which gave us a good yield but somewhat unexciting-tasting fruits. They weren't great for cooking or eating raw, but Brian thought they might be good for pickled stuffed peppers. (This was what he was making during his canning experiment a couple of weeks ago, which I didn't disclose in my previous entry because they were going to be a Christmas present for his dad. He opened them today and we all tried them, and Brian is now keen to try making more.) So we're planning on two Carmens, one of the new Czech Blacks, and one Klari Baby Cheese. We'll keep one of the Jimmy Nardello variety if we can figure out where to squeeze in a fifth pepper plant; otherwise we'll drop it.

As for tomatoes, we are definitely keeping our new Pineapple variety, which was both incredibly tasty and incredibly productive. However, our new Mr. Fumarole paste tomato was a lot less impressive. Like pretty much every Roma-style tomato we've tried, its yields were unimpressive—about 10 tomatoes total, most of them quite small. The other new one, Black Prince, was somewhere in between: tasty and reasonably productive, but not extraordinary. Fortunately, our trusty Sun Golds gave us plentiful yields as usual.

Looking over our tomato selections, we thought what we really lacked was a reliable early tomato (aside from the little Sun Golds) and a reliable paste tomato. Flipping through the catalogue, we discovered a variety called Heinz that looked like it might meet both needs: "An early red plum type that often ripens all its 2 1/2-3 oz fruits before frost" and is fairly disease-resistant. So we're planning to get some of those, and just for fun, we're also trying a cherry tomato called Honeydrop that's supposed to be "much less prone to cracking in wet weather than Sun Gold." To hedge our bets, we'll plant one of each; even a single Sun Gold plant should give us plenty of fruit, in case the new one is a complete bust. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be as good as the Sun Gold or better, we might just switch over completely.

That was all we needed for seeds, but our shopping didn't end there. The new Fedco catalogue also includes a separate section for its sister brands, Organic Growers Supply and Moose Tubers, so we paged through that as well. We skipped over the grains and cover crops and went straight to the sections on "Plant Protection and Pest Control" and "Orchard and Garden Health," looking for things that could help protect our plum trees from the twin scourges of brown rot and felonious squirrels. I found one product called "Tree Tanglefoot," which is a sticky substance meant to stop climbing insects from reaching your tree buds and fruits—but I'd also read on the Briggs Garden site that it can deter squirrels from climbing trees, since they don't like the way it feels on their paws. It might not work, but at any rate, it can't hurt. We can also pick up a bottle of fungicide to fend off the brown rot. This article recommends either a copper fungicide or a sulfur powder, both of which are available.

We still have a few other patches elsewhere in the yard that could do with some filling in. I'd like to beef up the herb bed, which right now is much thicker toward one end; we planted several plants in between the big bushes that used to be there, which have since spread out and are crowding each other, while the space where the last of the big bushes used to be is almost completely bare. I keep trying to persuade Brian to move one large rosemary plant down to the other end to relieve the crowding and fill in the bare spot at one stroke, but he insists on leaving it where it is because it's thriving there and he isn't sure it would in a new spot. So I guess we'll need to find some other useful herb we can stuff into that spot. There are a few—lemon balm, lovage, skullcap, summer savory—that should do okay in our soil and look nice, but I'm not sure what we'd actually use. We'll have to look into them a bit more and, if we can't decide on a useful one, maybe just go by looks.

I'd also like to choose some new flowers for our flowerbed. The all-perennial mix we planted this year has proved disappointing, with only a few scattered blooms that couldn't compete with the weeds. The echinacea flowers were nice, because they attracted goldfinches, but the others were pretty unimpressive. I went through several lists of plants that thrive in clay soil and came up with a list of five perennials that should, in theory, be able to grow with relatively little care and give us blossoms from spring through fall: drumstick primrose, Japanese primrose, coreopsis, yarrow, and Autumn Joy sedum. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find any nursery anywhere that can sell me all five of them. Fedco has two of them in seed form, so perhaps my best option will be to add those to my order and try and find seeds for the others elsewhere, then plant everything at once and hope for the best.

So, once we manage to go through our actual collection of seeds and see what else we're short on, I'll be able to draw up my order and send it off to Fedco. And with that, we draw up the covers over our 2018 garden beds. Sleep well, little garden, until spring.

Monday, December 18, 2017

DIY canning equipment

Ever since we started gardening, Brian and I have used a variety of methods to preserve our excess produce (when we were fortunate enough to have any). Winter squash, of course, are easy to store; we just stash them downstairs in the cool confines of the laundry room until we want to use them. Freezing is the next easiest method, and a search our freezer on any given day is likely to turn up bags of rhubarb, containers of tomato sauce, and cubes of pesto that we've frozen in the ice-cube tray. Over the years, we've also experimented with packing fresh basil in salt or olive oil, drying cherry tomatoes in the oven, and making jars of ice box dill pickles that keep for several months in the fridge.

Until recently, though, we'd never actually tackled the toughest of all home preservation methods: canning. For one thing, it's a much more involved process than any other method; a quick search on "how to can" just led me to this page from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, with literally dozens of different fact sheets on the various tools and techniques involved. There's a lot that can go wrong—and the consequences of a mistake can be deadly.

Recently, though, Brian was moved to try a pickle recipe that called for actual canning. It didn't look too complicated: load the veggies into the jars, pour the boiled pickling mixture on top, then seal the jars and process them in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes. The worst that could happen would be that the jars didn't seal properly, and it would be pretty easy to tell if they hadn't—in which case we could just treat the resulting pickles as ice box pickles and keep them in the fridge.

The problem was the equipment. These days, it's fairly easy to find canning jars and lids at supermarkets, and we have a large stock pot that's big enough to process small jars in a boiling water bath. However, there are two additional, specialized pieces you need for canning: a rack to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot, so water can circulate properly, and a pair of wide, curved tongs for lifting the jars out of the hot water bath. Brian was naturally reluctant to invest money in these for a single canning attempt that might turn out to be his last.

To see if there was any way to mock up reasonable substitutes for these two pieces, I did a quick search on "DIY canning equipment" and came across this handy "home hacks" article on Kitchn. It said you can easily convert a pair of ordinary kitchen tongs to sturdy, jar-gripping tongs suitable for canning with some rubber bands. Just wrap several of them securely around the blades of the tongs, fitting them into the grooves. Brian tried it with our basic kitchen tongs and found that with this addition, they could lift a full half-pint jar with no slippage.

The article also suggested a way to make a canning rack out of aluminum foil by twisting it into ropes, then weaving them together to make a circular mat that fits your stockpot. However, the resulting jerry-rigged rack didn't look very sturdy, and it seemed likely that it would only be good for a single use. Brian figured that if he was going to go to the trouble of making something from scratch for this canning experiment, it might as well be something that he could use again if he decided it was worth pursuing canning any further in future. But on the other hand, there was a chance he'd only use it once, so he didn't want to buy any new materials for it.

So he disappeared down into his tinkering workshop, from which a series of mysterious banging sounds soon began to issue. When he finally reemerged, he was carrying this ingenious device, cobbled together from several lengths of perforated steel hanger strap. He'd bought this stuff so long ago that he couldn't even remember what it was initially for, but it came on a fairly big roll, and there was lots of it left. He simply made a series of rings from it, ranging from very small to almost the circumference of the stockpot, and lined them all up together so that he could thread a single bolt through the holes in all the circles at once.

As you can see, this DIY rack fits neatly in the bottom of the pot and supports a quart jar on top, with a good couple of inches to spare. The multiple layers of sturdy tape are strong enough to hold up the larger jars, and close enough together that even the smaller jars can't slip through. It can hold at least three quart jars or four little pint jars at a time.

As it turns out, the pickling process didn't go off entirely without a hitch (though that's a story for another blog entry). But the DIY equipment itself performed admirably. Best of all, neither of the pieces took up much room when we were done with it. The canning rack can be stashed right in the pot, ready to go in case we decide to use it again. The tongs, stripped of their rubber bands, are back in their usual place in the drawer; should we decide to take another crack at canning, it will be a simple enough matter to get them wrapped up again. Much better than spending money on a whole new piece of equipment that we then have to make room for.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Normal behavior is crazy

Yesterday, Brian and I were out in the yard, dealing with the long-delayed task of raking up this fall's leaves. We distributed most of them across our various planting beds—the rhubarb, the asparagus, the bush cherries, and the new flowerbed in the front—where they will provide a layer of moisture-preserving mulch and insulation from the cold, which we hope will help the plants get an earlier start in spring. The leftover leaves that the beds couldn't accommodate got scooped into the compost bin, along with the dried-out remains of last year's wildflowers and asparagus, to break down into free, organic fertilizer that will give next year's beds a nutrient boost without any harmful chemicals.

At some point during this process, it occurred to me—as it occasionally does while going about my ecofrugal life—that what we were doing was not normal.

What a normal person would do is use a leaf blower to corral all those leaves, scoop them into leaf bags, and leave them at the curb to be hauled off to the landfill. Then, having saved so much time and energy by substituting a noisy, fuel-burning, carbon-emitting engine for their own muscle power, they would hop in their fuel-burning, carbon-emitting car and go off to an expensive gym to get some exercise. And on the way home, they'd probably stop at the home center to pick up a few bags of mulch for the flower beds, and possibly some fertilizer for next year's garden.

Moreover, it would simply never occur to them that it was possible to do anything else. If they happened, while heading out in the car, to spot us in our yard raking our own leaves—saving money and gas, and getting some free, healthy exercise to boot—they would probably smile pityingly (or perhaps smugly) on those poor folks who "couldn't afford" a leaf blower to do the job for them. If we tried to explain that we were raking our own leaves because we wanted to, they'd think we were crazy.

But what's really crazy here? Our ecofrugal lifestyle—or the "normal" way of doing things? Are we crazy for doing a simple job with our own hands instead of an expensive, gas-guzzling machine, or is it crazy that we live in a society where that's not considered normal?

Once I had this epiphany—that normal makes no sense—I started seeing more examples everywhere. For instance, when I spotted the stack of holiday gifts in our guest room, all wrapped in reusable gift bags and reused wrapping paper, I realized that, if I were normal, I'd just go out and buy new wrapping paper every year and send it all to the landfill after a single use. (According to this Marketplace story, Americans spend more than $7 billion a year on wrapping paper—$21 for every man, woman, and child in the country—and most of it can't even be recycled.)

I noticed it yet again later in the day, when we stopped off at a Starbucks after doing some holiday shopping and pulled out a deck of cards to play cribbage, instead of each sitting down and staring at a screen like everyone else in the place. (Of course, I realize that some frugal folks would argue stopping at Starbucks at all, and spending $4 on a cup of coffee—even if it's a peppermint mocha—is itself crazy. But at least Starbucks is an eco-friendly business that I'm happy to support, and a cup of coffee from there is no more harmful to the earth than one brewed at home—with the exception of the disposable cup, but come on, it's a special holiday cup that doubles as a coloring book. That's a kind of crazy I'm willing to live with.)

The fact is, a lot of things we ecofrugal folks do are going to come across as weird to society in general. Heck, even an article about frugality on Money Crashers went so far as to attack "the crazy things some people do" to save money, like cutting Post-It notes in half (rather than wasting a whole square to write a single word) or doing the same thing with dryer sheets (thereby spending less money, wasting less material, and halving their exposure to the questionable chemicals these sheets contain). The author, who describes himself as a frugal person, nonetheless says anyone who has "ever thought of doing stuff like that" needs to "take a chill pill" and quit "living like you're an early primate."

This kind of judgmental sneering can sometimes lead us to question our ecofrugal choices and wonder if we really are being unreasonable—perhaps even crazy—for trying to save money and help the environment, instead of living a wasteful, "normal" lifestyle. At times like this, it helps to take a step back and objectively compare what you want to do with what the rest of society is doing, and ask yourself which one makes more sense. Then you can throw your head back and shout along with Suicidal Tendencies, "I'm not crazy! You're the one that's crazy!"

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need to get outside and start shoveling the year's first snow off our sidewalks. And if any of our "normal" neighbors show up at the same time with their loud, heavy, expensive snow blowers, we'll have fun seeing if they can actually get the job done any faster.