Showing posts with label homesteading skills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label homesteading skills. Show all posts

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Man skills

Aurora @ Island Dreaming

I don't know what else to call them - most people will know what I mean by 'man' skills, much as it irks me to divide labour along gender lines in this day and age. These are the areas of production that, in peacetime at least, have been the domain of men. Perhaps we could call them hard skills, as they involve sharp edges, hard surfaces, fire and electrical currents. A little danger, if you will, when contrasted against the much softer, rounder edges of garden, yarn and kitchen crafts.These are the industries that most commonly employed men and the skills kept alive, mostly by men, tinkering in sheds.

Until this week, I knew not a single person that shaped metal and welds in their spare time. I work in facilities management and the maintenance teams, comprised entirely of men, are obviously quite handy. But the older ones complain that the younger ones coming in from college lacking old skills - mental arithmetic, a working knowledge of their allied disciplines, a willingness to think outside the box. The number of jobs in these practical sectors seems to be continually shrinking. Whether this is a reality or not I don't know, but all of the people that I know that work in less tactile service industries do not pursue these hard practical skills in their spare time. They have hobbies - cooking, yarn crafts, gardening and may have an admiration for cars and gadgets. Few of them however, myself included, can fix a cooker, make a spinning wheel, re-handle a spade, perform an oil change or build a PC from spare parts.

Part of the problem I think is that these skills are less accessible and more expensive to learn. They require dedicated workshop space and tools. Many of them require a solid knowledge of scientific principles which many come out of school lacking. Part of it might be a mental block - these are the things that so many who are trying to simplify and transition to a lower energy future really can't imagine having to supply for themselves. I would hope against hope that women are not held back from them because they are unladylike, though I fear that may often be the case. But the idea that a powered down future is going to be built solely with knitting and seedlings is dangerous. I fear we may end up with an overabundance of skilled cooks, knitters and gardeners; and an under abundance of welders, tool sharpeners and ham radio enthusiasts.

Why is this on my mind?

This is the plough our allotment neighbour built. He spent the winter in Bangladesh on his family farm and brought this back with him. It is made from scrap metal, hand cut and shaped, welded together. It fits into a extendable paint roller handle. He shipped it back from Bangladesh, I suppose, because his expensive diesel powered rotovator was mangled by a piece of scrap metal buried on his plot. It is sturdy. It cuts through soil and weeds like a knife through butter and ploughs an allotment row in minutes. It laughs in the face of the scrap metal buried on his plot - and if it does get mangled, it can be repaired by hand with pieces of scrap metal. I am in awe of the handiwork and ashamed that I would not have a clue where to even begin with a project like this, short of 'Step 1: find scrap metal'.

My own grandad was a ham radio enthusiast. He built his own aerial in the back garden. He was an early adopter of computer technology and tinkered with all things electrical and mechanical. If I had grown up around him I may have been more handy than I am, but regardless of our crafts, I think that his example is why the DIY ethic courses through my veins. But my skills are all distinctly 'soft' and I felt both in awe and completely inadequate when confronted with this plough. Awe and inadequacy combined are an inspirational combination and I am now on the look out for my own 'hard' skill to develop over the next few years, though what it will be I do not know.

What 'hard' skills do you possess and are you trying to pass them on to others or revive them? Is there something you want to learn and what is stopping you? And what should I do? Ideas much appreciated...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Rethinking Convenience Food

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Cooking from scratch doesn't necessarily come to mind when one thinks of convenience foods. We have been trained for several generations to purchase ready-made goods. It started out innocent enough, but now people are yearning to go back to an earlier time and sets of skills and do more for themselves. Whether it be cooking, gardening, farming, or other lost skills it's all the same, we thought we were saving time and ended up getting busier and busier with no time (we were told) to do for ourselves. But really we lost a lot by not paying attention. I call myself Throwback for a reason. I am a throwback to an earlier time, when tasks like cooking, sewing and all the ins and outs of gardening were common knowledge. I'll give the luck of the draw some credit, I grew up on a farm, my parents were older and still kept some of the old ways, likewise with their circle of friends. My husband and I joke that our habits are so old, that they're in again.

As I prepared soup for dinner today, I went about my work gathering ingredients. We grow most of our food and preserve the harvest in a multitude of ways to last us through the dark days until the growing season starts in earnest.

You know, it sure is convenient to just go to the fruit room, freezer or root cellar and go shopping for meal preparation. I grabbed home canned roasted tomatoes, garlic, onions and potatoes from dry storage, ground beef, peppers, cilantro pesto and corn from the freezer, and grabbed a quart of chicken stock from the fridge. This task made me realize just how convenient it is to have great ingredients on hand to prepare meals with. We grow our own, but if you're not there yet with your pantry stocking from your gardens, you can still load your pantry with purchased goods. The key is having it on hand. Many good meals have been made on the spur of the moment - as long as you have the basics you're good to go.

I guess what I want to say is, if you're a new cook or gardener slaving away trying to master the skills, it's worth it. We need to rethink the idea of convenience food, nothing is more convenient than having good food on hand for preparing a home cooked meal.

Here is the recipe for our dinner made possible by our pantry and my guess and by gosh cooking. This recipe is just a general idea that can be changed to match what you have on hand. In the summer my chilies, corn and cilantro are fresh, in the winter the freezer stores have to do. Pork or chicken are good in this soup too - just use what you have. This recipe is convenient too because of the long cooking time, I can leave this to cook on the back of the woodstove, or even in the slow cooker if I wanted to. Truly convenient.

Beef Stew with Cilantro

1 pound ground beef or stew meat
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup coconut oil or butter
1 quart whole canned tomatoes
1 pint roasted whole tomatoes
1 quart chicken or beef stock
2 pounds potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 or 3 anaheim chiles, chopped
1/3 cup chopped cilantro or cilantro pesto
1 cup frozen corn
sugar to taste - 1 teaspoon or not?
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In large saucepan over medium high heat, brown onion, garlic and chopped pepper in 1/4 cup coconut oil or butter. When onions are caramelized, add meat and cook until brown. Remove meat and alliums from pan and set aside. Over medium heat in same pan, add all other ingredients, bring to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, add meat and alliums. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the cover and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Serve. Much better the next day.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Candle Making

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

Today my friend and I, with our nine children (between us) made all sorts of candles from beeswax - most of it from her beehives.

Firstly, we gathered materials outdoors - old tables, aprons, gas burners, old pots and bowls, jars and tins, newspaper, pop sticks and blu tack.  With so many people, mostly children, candle-making is a messy activity!  We also had blocks of beeswax, some offcuts of beeswax sheets and some wick.

Beforehand, we had a look at a candle-making book and searched online for methods to try.  We'd made rolled candles before, so that was the easiest way to begin.

While we set up the pots to melt wax, the children rolled small tapered candles from triangles of beeswax sheet.  They got the hang of it quickly and finished off the whole box of sheets in no time.

Next we tried dipping candles.  It was a slow process and the adults tired of it very quickly, but the children were fascinated by the lumpy-bumpy results of their dipping!  Some of us dipped some tapered candles, to fill the gaps in the beeswax sheets so they'll burn longer, and to give a different finish.

A sample of the results of our candle-making.

We also made a couple of candles in moulds, and it gave the neatest, fastest result.  Because we have access to a lot of wax, we'll be hunting down some more moulds for our next candle-making day!

It's great fun to make things with children.  Their focus on the process, not the product, helps us lighten up and enjoy the activity more.

Have you made anything new lately?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

New Skills

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

Last year, I wrote about reskilling here.  And just this week I was thinking that reskilling really is a way of life for us now.  We're actively learning to do new things all the time.
image from

Some of the things I have learned to do in the past year or so:
- different ways to grow sprouts
- making toothpaste and other personal care products
- cooking more sauces (like worcestershire, chilli)
- cooking with various cuts of beef
- making feta cheese with jersey milk
- using the food dehydrator for various things
- treating sick animals with natural remedies

It's amazing how much we can do just by learning a handful of skills each year!

I'd like to learn how to plaster fibro walls, grow potatoes more successfully, catch a fish in the creek (will get my boys to take me fishing), build a trellis, grow more legumes to use as dried beans, dig up my sweet potatoes at the right time, make hard cheese...

What skills have you learned recently?  What would you like to learn this year?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Great Reskilling

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

Something which keeps popping up for me in conversations and community work lately is the term 'reskilling'. And I see it's now part of our new header banner here at the Co-Op blog!

Reskilling is "re-learning the skills that our grandparents took for granted, such as how to use hand tools, how to build our own structures, how to mend and make clothing, how to make our own medicine, how to forage, grow, preserve and store our food."
Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement

The Great Reskilling refers to how society-at-large will be affected by Peak Oil, Climate Change and Economic Crisis in the coming decase or so.

When considering topics for our local Simply Living Workshops, we first identified the people within our community who have these 'old skills'. We then went about planning our workshop series, which includes:

growing food, including climate-specific workshops
food forests
storing and preserving food, including lacto-fermentation
sourdough bread baking
home medicinals
first aid
weaving and fibre crafts
alternative building and energy
crisis comprehension
keeping poultry
home dairying
fermented dairy products
animal husbandry - general
raising and using livestock - from hoof to horn
horse care - basic

Which skills have you learned since reading this blog, or otherwise researching simple living? Which skills do you think we need to add to our list above?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Aztec Gold

written by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

I have a great many hobbies, but one of my favourites has to be beer making.  Now how could beer making be green, I here you ask?  Well glad you asked.  Have a read of this post titled "Gav's Eco Beer" to get a good understanding of the environmental benefits of making your own beer. 

Anyway, I made up a simple recipe that I found on a the back of a Coopers leaflet called Aztec Gold.  I put 500g of Dry light malt and 1 can of Coopers Cerveza brew mixture into the fermenter, added 2 litres of boiling water and mix.  Once mixed, I added rain water to make up 23 litres, took an original specific gravity reading (mine was 1036) and then pitched the yeast when the temperature goes below 25C.  To see how the process works, have a look at my Home Brewing video tutorial

I made this batch up on a Sunday, before I came down sick, and it bubbled away merrily for 6 days.  My wife Kim let me put the fermenter in the laundry, because the temperature variation in the shed has been ridiculous and she likes Cerveza!

The beer stopped fermenting on Friday so I could have bottled it earlier, however from experience, I always leave the beer in the fermenter for an extra two days, so that the beer settles and clears without the use of finings. The final specific gravity was 1008.

After washing and sterilising all sixty six 330ml bottles, I added just under a teaspoon of white sugar to each bottle, then filled them all up as you can see below.

Then I went about putting the crown seals on each bottle with my hand capping machine.  

My darling daughter Megan (who took the photos) always catches my best angle.  Here is a sealed bottle.  Once sealed, I inverted the bottle a few times to dissolve the sugar to start secondary fermentation.  This produces the beer bubbles.

Here is an action shot.  It is a pretty simple process, and from start to finish, bottling usually takes me about 90 minutes.

This recipe turned out to be a winner.  It is light at only 3.5%, and has a fantastic taste that is just right for drinking after a session with the hand lawn mower!

Beer making is a great hobby, and I suppose that if I draw a really long bow, it is a great skill to have if the breweries every shut down or go broke, and besides that, the satisfaction of sharing your own home made beer with mates is second to none.  Especially when it tastes great as well!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Reducing Food Waste

by Gavin, from The Greening of Gavin

Recently, I read that over 30% of all household garbage is food waste; peel, plate scraps, rotten food, tea bags, etc.  Now this figure does not include food waste from Supermarkets, agriculture and the food industry in general.  In landfill these organic scraps become buried under tonnes of other waste and earth in an oxygen deprived environment.  As they breakdown they produce methane which is 25 time more potent than CO2 as a Green House Gas.  Not to mention the pure arrogance of being able to throw away food when over a billion people across the world don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  It makes me feel sick and sad.

So if this issue is so big, what are some of the solutions?  Well a few that I can thing of that can help you to divert food waste from landfill are really common sense and easy to implement   The most obvious is to reduce food waste at the start of the cycle.  By this, I mean when you go grocery shopping.  Here are a few tips;

  • Take a list.  By using a list you will most probably only buy the food items you really need, and in compiling the list you would have checked upon your existing stores at home and just be topping up.
  • Don’t shop on an empty stomach.  From personal experience, you buy more food when you are hungry, and usually it is food that you just don’t need.  It is like impulse buying that kicks in due to hunger pains.
  • Grow your own food.  Plant a vegetable garden and reap the rewards, financially, physically and mentally.  It has been proven that people that grow their own waste very little of their own produce.  Maybe it is pride, or the thought of all that effort you took from seed to table.
So by limiting food waste at the beginning of the cycle reduces waste overall. 
During the storage phase, there are other solutions to minimise waste.  Here are some thoughts that might help
  • Menu planning.  Planning each meal may sound a bit anal, but it helps you to utilise the food you have at hand.  Each item in your fridge (where most food spoils) will be accounted for and will usually be used before going furry.
  • Use the crisper.  Your fridge has different compartment for different types of food.  The crisper is the best place for fruit and vegetables and usually last at least two weeks longer than in other parts of the fridge.
  • Use stuff on hand.  Before you go opening another jar of jam, check to see if you have one already open in the fridge.  No use breaking the seal to find that you still have one that is three quarters full.

Finally, what to do with leftovers?  Leftovers are one of my favourite meals.  They can be put into containers and frozen for lunches during the week.  They can be used in other meals.  Cooked too many vegetables?  Try making a bubble and squeak.  Too much Christmas Ham?  Make a pea and ham soup, or freeze chunks of it for use in a few months time when you crave some hammy goodness.  Cooked too much soup?  Well freeze it so you can enjoy it later.  There are so many things you can do with leftover food. 

If worst comes to worst, at least your pets can enjoy a good feed, or maybe even the chickens can have a nosh up if you keep them.  Nothing goes to waste around here at my house.  If the dog won’t eat it, the chooks, or worms or compost bins probably will.  The only organic things we throw into the landfill bin are small bones, but only after we have used them to make a stock!

In summary, using some of these methods will help you to reduce your organic waste, and save you a few dollars in the process.  Waste not, want not! 

Monday, 13 December 2010

Homemade Jerky

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

I have a few hard to buy for omnivores on my Christmas list and the other day the idea of homemade jerky popped into my head. Making jerky was a hit-or-miss affair at my house, and I never really liked the end result or the ingredients in the recipes. And then one day I happened upon a fine blog and an even finer jerky recipe (among all his other fine recipes.) It was like a fairy tale, the meat princess finds her true love...a jerky recipe with all natural ingredients and actually ingredients I have on hand all the time.

Getting this recipe has allowed me to look at all those meat cuts I ordered with good intentions, but never got around to just yet. You know the ones, when your next order of beef comes in and you still have the odd things here and there. This recipe has also been a god-send to our beef customers too. Who wants to take carefully raised grassfed beef and dump Liquid Smoke on it? Not me and certainly not my customers.

I have tweaked this a little since the first batch, and Kevin has too, so I will post the recipe as it was when I started making it and will put my changes in bold. It's a great recipe that lends itself to monkeying with and the batches may turn out different but all are good, and be forewarned once you start making it, you better hide it or resign yourself to the fact that you will be making jerky often enough to become proficient.

In Kevin's words: "I’ve made a fair whack of jerky, both in the oven and over wood fire, sweet-glazed versions, plain versions, smoked and unsmoked. I’ve recently come across a recipe that’s worth sharing. Not only is it dang tasty, it avoids the onion/garlic powder route which even ‘Charcuterie’ suggests [a rare shortcoming of the book]:

per pound of meat [in this case, very tough 09 moose]:

1 tbsp kosher salt (Redmond Realsalt or Celtic Sea Salt)

1 tbsp soy sauce (Tamari wheat-free soy sauce)

2 tsp dark brown sugar (Rapidura)

2 cloves garlic, minced (I microplaned my garlic for more flavor)

1 tsp dried chili [optional] (Chili powder)

1 tsp cracked black pepper [optional] (not optional)

Slice meat thin and most importantly – evenly – while still partially frozen. Mix with marinade ingredients above, and refrigerate for a day or three. Dry via your method of choice. Note that jerky pieces never finish all at the same time, so you have to pull them off as they get to a texture you like."

I have had good luck drying my jerky in our wood cookstove oven, with the oven door open and a medium fire, it's a day long process to dry it and it does need going through to check for finished pieces. Smoking and any method you have at hand would work just as well.

I have found that Kevin's instructions for a day or three of marinating is best if you can hold out for the three days, the flavor is so much better, and forgiving on the thicker pieces.

If you use meat that has been languishing awhile in your freezer, trim off all fat and silver skin, or you will have old tasting jerky.

I plan about 5 days out for finished jerky. 1 day to thaw and quickly do a partial refreeze on cookie sheets for uniform slicing, then 3 days to marinate, and 1 day to dry. I tried slicing my meat when it was partially thawed to save time and I ended up with some too soft, and some too frozen, or in the case of a roast, I could not cut it while in its original shape. And the end result looked like Lizzie Borden had been hacking away at it. I decided to do the extra day.

Besides a being a homemade gift item, we have put a small jar in the vehicle emergency kit too. It's a good high protein snack to have on hand, and keeps indefinitely.

For me this has been a good way to use up so-so meat cuts that I have neglected, and the recipe is simple enough to change ingredients to suit what I may or may not have on hand - I can't wait to try Kevin's onion suggestion next!

Do you have any jerky making tips to share?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

This Journey Is Like Learning To Knit

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

I think, when I started out on this journey, I thought it was going to be flip flops and applesauce - also known as having more time to do things I love (like wear flip flops) and learn the skills to make things (like applesauce). Oh how wrong I was! For me this downshifting, simple living has at times not been so simple, although it has certainly been memorable and mostly humorous too! There have been many mistakes, teary days, joys and a whole lot of frustration. It has at times, felt all too easy to be misunderstood and some days, living a life which felt far too different from the norm; I've yeared to be part of the simple living, homesteading, crafting posse but didn't have the land or crafting skills to make that happen. Finally, I documented here sometime earlier this year that I was going to simply take my time to get to where I want to be, with no self-induced pressure, no time lines, no stress and what do you know, suddenly it became a little easier. After what seems like years trying to learn to knit, making mistake after mistake (most of which I had no clue how to repair!), starting and re-starting, switching patterns and getting a whole slew of advice, I just decided to knit and knit and knit, adding in a few rows here and there, in my very own style, with no set pattern, all in my own time. Slowly but surely it got easier and over a period of about a month my first real knitting creation was born (pun intended); suddenly I was filled with renewed hope.

Life is a journey, finding the simple, green & frugal lifestyle that is right for you in your particular season can be bumpy, it can be a bit like one step back two steps forward (although sometimes it feels like one step forward two steps back!) and we'll each succeed (at what success is for us!) in our own way, in our own colours, with our very own stripes, in our own time...and let's just say, this knitting gig is here to stay!

Did you ever have a moment where you realized just how far you'd come on your journey? If you are a knitter, what was your first knitting creation?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Skills to Survive

I had an interesting conversation with some friends the other day about the skill set many of us have in our modern world and the skill set people had 200 years ago. Many of us now have skills that aren't directly linked to our survival. My skills as an business manager earn me a salary of money which I then give to a grocery store to buy food which it purchased from someone else. If something drastic happened in our world and we could no longer earn money, or if we could no longer buy food at a grocery store many people would be in a huge pickle. This is because our skills are no longer directly linked to our survival.

There are many of us that are trying to learn these basic survival skills once again, things like growing food, raising poultry, hunting, eating seasonally, canning, baking, building, sewing, knitting, spinning, etc. Some of us were lucky and grew up with parents that grew food, mom's that cooked from scratch and dad's that built furniture in the garage. Others weren't so lucky. Even if we were lucky enough to have parents that were into that sort of thing, most likely we didn't pay attention or hated gardening, or perhaps they just didn't do some things you are now interested in. As a result many of us are now trying to learn these skills through the internet, books, videos and from others.

One of the things I've noticed as I strive to learn new skills is that there's a huge overload of information. It can be difficult to glean the good stuff from the bad. I find it amusing sometimes when I read a book about something like keeping chickens that was written by someone that didn't grow up with chickens and just learned about them a few years ago. They often say things in the book that seem completely ridiculous and go against the way nature intended things to be. Books can be a good source of info, but they can also be completely wrong or not as in depth as they should be. Sometimes they completely gloss over important information. When researching a new topic I usually read 5-10 books about it and then assimilate all the information from the various sources. Usually I end up with a pretty good idea of how it should be done.

I find a lot of wonderful information on blogs and through internet friends (like all of you). Blogs are a great way to connect with others that are like-minded not only for advice and information, but also to have a support network. The connections I've made through blogging are not only a great source of information, but also a wonderful network of support!

I have also been working on building a network of local people that have some of the skills I don't posses so I can purchase or barter for their goods or services and learn from them. I have yet to be able to raise chickens or keep dairy cows, but I have a small local farm where I get these items. I know that I can rely on them to provide me with quality milk, eggs and meat and I'm so much happier giving them my money. Bartering is also a great option when you have developed a small local network for the things you need. One spring I traded 50 tomato seedlings for a good amount of pastured meat from a local farmer. I have also traded elderberries and other items for items I can't produce myself.

I am now confident that I have many of the skills needed to survive should I ever need them. Lets hope we never need these skills for some major disaster, but it may well be that they'll come in handy during a localized natural disaster or even an extended season of unemployment. I'm more comfortable knowing that I have a safety net, beyond our monetary emergency fund, in the skills I've taken the time to cultivate over the last 5 years. I would hate to be scrambling to learn these things when I needed them most.

What kinds of survival skills have you been learning over the past couple years? Where do you find the best information?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Pass It On

I have been thinking a lot here lately about education and passing on knowledge. I submitted the forms necessary for our area to be "official" homeschoolers this year, as my daughter is of the mandatory reporting age. Our reasons for keeping our children home are numerous and varied. From personal experience, there is so much learning that should happen at home, anyway, that it made a lot of sense for us. Much of that knowledge is of the homemaking variety. My daughter and son can be whatever they choose when they are older, but I expect them to be able to make dinner for themselves, sew clothes if needed, plant a garden and various other homesteading tasks that get easily left behind in modern schooling.

Recently I was given the opportunity to teach some classes at a local farm/store, and I have loved it. I love that the classes exist, period, really, though, as the fact that people will pay to learn something like making jams, making soaps, sewing aprons and cooking from scratch, tells us that priorities are changing, and for the better. There are so many crafts and skills that are getting lost-lost in a fast paced society and also due to changes in priorities. There was a time when schools (and grandmothers) taught girls how to do simple homemaking tasks-basics at the very least-so they could maintain a home when they were older. It didn't matter what path they were going to take-working full-time, having children or not-they needed basic skills. Young men were required to learn how to change the oil in a car and simple woodworking. Currently many of these programs are being cut from schools due to lack of funding and families no longer pass that sort of knowledge on, if they even possess it. I think the priorities of our society have shifted. What is even more troubling is that the older generations have even been removed from these skills in many cases. I know many families where the matriarchs or patriarchs are just as clueless about how to perform tasks many of us in the simple/frugal/green movement do everyday as their younger counterparts are.

Luckily, those of us who have learned, either from the internet, friends, grandparents who have been there, books or other classes are seeing the need to pass on that knowledge. I love showing others how to do things-whether it is mending a garment, recycling a sheet into something new and fun, baking bread or canning the season's bounty. I love to do it whether I am getting paid (which is just a nice bonus for a one income household) or not. I think education is vital for the survival of communities. Many people hear me talk about something and their response is "I didn't know you could do that!". It is important to keep up with our public display of the things we do to open up opportunities to teach others. It isn't that there isn't something for us to learn from folks who live faster, more modern "normal" lives, but much of what we do is getting lost and the only way to preserve these skills, which may be necessary someday-we cannot know-is to teach them, both to the next generation and to current ones.

I end in saying how very tickled I was about the attendance of the sewing class I co-taught over the weekend. A very close friend and I taught an intro to sewing class, and helped the ladies there to sew simple aprons. They were giddy that there was an easily accessible outlet to learn something of the sort, and we were happy to pass the knowledge on. The thing that got me was the ages of the people there; from a teenager (who turned red every time we mentioned tagging her in a picture of her in her apron on facebook for all her friends to see-which we had no intention of doing, but she was so darn cute) to ladies in their thirties and forties. The bread baking class last month had ladies in their fifties. It is awesome to see people willing to learn, no matter their age, and being able to make that happen. If those who have the knowledge do not pass it on, whether to their children or others, it will be lost. Knowledge is one of our most valuable resources, and one that is both easily wasted and easily given. I hope more people take opportunities to give it. It is so terribly fulfilling to see someone use their new skills, and in knowing that they now have the chance to pass it along.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Classics on my Bookshelf

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I think I'm older than most of my fellow writers here. I lack the fervor of the newly reformed too. I've always pretty much lived this lifestyle. I missed most of the greed and acquisitiveness of the 80's because I spent that decade living in a rather remote mountain town. Back when I was wanting to learn more about a self-sufficient lifestyle, there was no Internet and mentors were hard to find. So I turned to books.

And even now, with information so easily available, just a few keyboard clicks away, I'm still apt to look to my self-built reference library for answers. I'll check out new information, but some of my old books have served me well for decades. I've noticed that many of them, unavailable for many years, are now back in print. Others you may be able to find cheap, second-hand, as some old folks start looking to downsize their living space and clean out old clutter. Here are a few of my favorite titles; ones I think are worth snapping up if you happen to come across one, and perhaps even searching out.

Hands-down, the stuck-on-a-desert-island, one-book-only, choice I'd pick would be the Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery. That book covers everything, in an easy to read, amusing style. She's written how-to's about raising animals, gardens and orchards, recipes, preserving food - everything from midwifery to burying your dead are covered in this one amazing book.

For those looking to build up an emergency store of food, I have an old book, finally now available as a reprint. The new Passport to Survival, by Rita Bingham and Esther Dickey, is a step-by-step plan for first figuring out how much of what you'd need for a year (as members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, they are writing from experience), tips on how to acquire and store it, and then recipes for using what you've stored. Parts of the book I read with a critical eye, as they can get a bit preachy about some "miracle-food" items, but overall I consider it a valuable resource.

I just recently wrote about my sourdough starter over on my own blog. My copy of Adventures in Sourdough Cooking & Baking, by Charles Wilford, is so well-used I might have to start looking for another copy. It's a great reference for a beginner, with instructions about the care and feeding of your starter. There are a multitude of various bread and breakfast recipes, but also things like noodles, cookies, and pot pie dough.

I grow my fruits and vegetables in a rather harsh, high-desert, climate. I absolutely love anything written by Eliot Coleman. His Four-Season Harvest has helped me stretch our fresh-eating season to practically year-round. I'm still playing with various season-extender covers, but his writing is helping us to redefine normal in terms of a seasonal diet.

We do have a root cellar for storing winter produce (and the fig trees - a whole 'nother story) - dug and built by hand. Root Cellaring, by Mike & Nancy Bubel, helped with figuring out the design, how to use it, and the best storage varieties of fruits and vegetables. I know this one will appeal to fewer readers out there, but I can't tell you how much I love "shopping" in my cellar during these cold, snowy, winter days.

In finding the links to the above books, I've noticed the covers of most of them don't look like my copies anymore, but I'm sure most of the information hasn't changed. I have lots of cookbooks too, that could be considered "classics," such as the Small Planet, The Farm, or the Moosewood ones. But the recipes they contain, though revolutionary at the time, are now pretty much standard fare. Other books on my kitchen bookshelf, such as the Make Your Own Groceries ones, are no longer in print. I also figure I might have left out your personal favorites, so please, any more suggestions are welcome in the comments.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Learning New Skills

by Chiot's Run

Mr Chiots and I have been trying to learn new skills to be able to do more things for ourselves, and to save money. Earlier this winter, our car needed new rotors and brake pads. Instead of taking it to the dealer or the local repair shop to get new ones Mr Chiots did the task himself, saving us a bundle. Not only did we save several hundred dollars in installation charges, we also purchased and installed really high quality pads & rotors that will last much longer than the usual ones that are put on.

He found a great resource on-line with a wonderful "how-to" guide and was able to put the new pads & rotors on in a few hours.

It was such a success, he helped a friend change his a few weeks later. Learning these skills not only saves money but it's a way to learn new skills and become a little more independent from the shopping cycle. We won't be doing all of our auto work, but any that we can do we will.

Have you learned any new skills recently?

Monday, 4 January 2010

When less is more: pruning

by Francesca


When I started gardening ten years ago, and I didn't expect this activity to become so much more than just a way to grow our food. The slow, steady pace of tending a garden is for me a constant learning experience, and almost a meditation.

kiwi vines to prune

Pruning, which in my part of the world starts at the beginning of the year with the pruning of grape and kiwi vines and olive trees, is a good example. I've learned that there are many reasons for pruning, which range from functional to purely aesthetic, but all involve the removing some parts of the plant in order to improve the plant as a whole. Most plants in our gardens, in fact, will improve both their health and their yield if we cut them, carefully, back to less.

I find that living better on less is a positive message for the new year, as well as a good general philosophy of life.

Before you start, you'll need two pruning essentials: a) correct tools, and b) a basic knowledge of your plants.

forbici del giardiniere

Correct tools:

For most pruning jobs, the proper tools are leather gloves and a pair of sharp pruning shears. Before buying a pair of shears, or any other equipment, it's worth doing a little research, as many companies make tools with replaceable parts. With proper care, these tools can be used almost indefinitely (for example, here are shears like this).

Know your plants:

Before you go out and start cutting away, learn something about the growth and vegetative cycles of the plant you intend to prune, to determine when to prune it – and whether to prune it at all. Also, consider your aims in pruning this plant. Are you trying to improve its appearance, increase its yield of fruits or flowers, or lengthen its lifespan by cutting away dead or diseased material? The answers to questions like this will help to determine what overall pruning approach you take.

pruned grape vines

There are three key concepts to keep in mind when pruning:

  1. First prune off all dead, diseased, or parasite-infested parts of the plant.

  2. Always cut above a bud - never too close or the bud will die, and never too far from it or the vegetative part above the bud will die causing dead tips.

  3. The apical bud is predominant over lateral ones, and will grow more vigorously (hence, if you prune the apical bud, your plant will tend to grow laterally and not vertically) . The apical bud and is more evident in younger plants than in older ones, and it's more evident in trees than in bushes and shrubs.

There are many valuable on-line resources for pruning. This is an excellent, thorough introduction to the reasons and methods of pruning, and here is a straight-forward guide filled with how-to tips on pruning many common garden plants.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Demystifying Soap Making for Beginners

by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hi everyone!

I'm feeling quite pleased with myself today because this weekend I made soap from scratch for the first time!

Soap making from scratch has always felt very daunting to me. Simply because it just sounds complicated.

Firstly, one doesn't measure but weighs. So rather than the usual 1 cup of (say) olive oil, one has to weigh the ingredients.

Secondly, almost every instruction out there seems to be full of caution about the use of caustic soda. I had half convinced myself that if handled incorrectly, it would explode.

And finally, there seems to be a huge emphasis on being precise. (And once again, I somehow got the impression that by being imprecise, then the whole thing could explode.)

All of the above combined can be very daunting for a newbie like me and prevented me from trying it out. Instead, during my no buying brand-new year, I made my existing soap supplies last longer by adding oats. (Instructions for this can be found here.) Much later on, I bartered for homemade soap in exchange for some sewing repairs.

All this is very well and good - indeed, by adding oats or by bartering, I managed to last 3 years of not buying soap and only using homemade soaps. However, after a little bit of encouragement, a friend of mine finally convinced me that I *can* make soap from scratch.

So here's a little thing about demystifying soap making.

Firstly - the weighing thing. My friend brought over her kitchen scales and we weighed our ingredients that way. It is a little different from baking or cooking but not that hard.

You need two medium to large saucepans - one to make lye water and another one to mix oils.

To make lye water

Lye water is just water and caustic soda. I poured 330 grams of cold water into the saucepan and took the saucepan outside. I then slowly poured 130 grams of caustic soda.

Now to demistify, the caustic soda.... I had forgotten that I actually have handled this in the past - to clean drains! We bought caustic soda from the local grocery shop (Woolworths) in the cleaning section. Caustic soda can be dangerous - but no more dangerous than handling any very harsh cleaning product. The soda is not a fine powder - it actually has the consistency of rock salt.

When you first pour the caustic soda in the water, nothing seems to happen. As I stirred the mixture (using a plastic spatula), I noticed that as the caustic soda slowly dissolved, the saucepan and spatula got hotter. Not burningly hot (mind you, I didn't put my hand in it) but the saucepan was noticeably hot to touch (think of toast when it first pops out of the oven - that hot).

As it dissolved, it also gave off a chemical burning smell. It was a good thing I was outside! The smell only lasted a minute though. Once the caustic soda has dissolved, then the smell pretty much disappeared.

And once its dissolved, then that's it! You have lye water. Set the saucepan aside.

To blend the oils

In the other saucepan, we mixed together 300g of macadamia oil, 400g olive oil and 200g of avocado oil. (Reminder - like the lye water, weigh the oils - do not use the measurements). We heated this mixture up on low heat for about 5 mins.

Turn the heat off and make yourselves a cup of coffee (or beverage of your choice).

The purpose of this step is to make sure that the lye water and the oils are the same temperature. Our instructions said both mixtures should be between 30-40 degrees celsius (86-104 degrees Farenheit).

Now we started off using the thermometer but in the end, we just used our hands (not directly into the lye mixture of course! just touched the outside of the saucepan).

Once we felt that the mixtures were about the same temperature, we poured the oil into the lye water. Note that the recipe said to pour the lye water into the oil mixure BUT we thought using the larger saucepan (the one that the lye water was in) was the better way to go.

Mix lye water and oil mixture

Next we used a bamix (stick blender) to blend the lye water and oil mixture.

As we mixed, the lye water and oil mixture started to bond. When the consistency turned into that of whipping cream, we added our essential oils.

Here we didn't measure as precisely. We added about 15 mls of sandlewood oil and 10 drops of tea tree oil.

When the mixture's consistency was that of a light custard, we stopped mixing and poured the soap into molds.

We covered the mold in a plastic wrap and stored it in a cool dry place. We now need to let the mixture sit for 24 to 36 hours.

This is a photo of mine after 7 hours (it was already hard to touch on the outside):

The full recipe with additional notes are here:

So there you go - no explosions and best of all, I realised how easy it actually was. Really, soap making is just 4 steps....and one of those steps involved sitting down and having a chat over coffee!

Anyway, I'm sure my first batch of soap won't be perfect (after all, we started off being precise but kinda went downhill after that) but I'm hoping that it will do the job!

I hope you have all had a lovely weekend.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Smoking Chipotle Peppers

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Earlier this year when posting here about my pepper pantry, I mentioned that I would be growing extra jalapenos this summer to replenish my chipotle (che-POAT-lee) supply. I promised I would post instructions for putting together a make-shift smoker, and turning jalapeno peppers into chipotles.

Start with ripe jalapeno peppers, ideally those that have turned completely red. This year, we had a late spring, reasonably cool summer, and snow the first week of October. Only a couple of my jalapeno peppers had just started to turn red when I had to pick everything (the golden ones on the left are habaneros - they too were picked green, but are faster to change color).

No problem. Peppers, like tomatoes, will continue to ripen after they're picked if left unrefrigerated. I let the peppers set out on the counter for a couple of weeks. They can set for quite a while, but try to process jalapenos before the stem starts to separate from the body of the chile. Some peppers with thinner walls will continue to ripen and then dry, but jalapenos are too fleshy - they tend to rot before they'll dry. Smoking them is one way to preserve your jalapenos - canning them as nacho slices, or freezing them whole, sliced, or stuffed with a cream cheese mixture to turn into poppers, or whipping up a batch of jalapeno hot sauce are other options (that link also has a recipe for my habanero-orange hot sauce - my absolute favorite, and why there are also habanero peppers ripening on my counter).

But I digress. We're supposed to be making a smoker to turn jalapenos into chipotles. Commercial smokers, that have been previously used for meat, can give a greasy, and later rancid, taste to the chiles, so it's best to use something just for the chipotles. Unless you're planning on going into the chipotle business, a temporary smoker made from easily acquired items is the way to go. The main thing to remember is that you don't want to cook the jalapenos, but rather let the smoke waft away the moisture in the chiles as it also infuses them with flavor. The best way to do that is to make a separate firebox, and then connect it to your smoking box with a piece of pipe. Of course, the firebox portion has to be able to withstand fire, so I've used some cinder blocks and a piece of steel pipe. I used some crumpled foil to fill in the areas between round pipe and square blocks, but it doesn't have to be perfectly airtight. The smoker section, on the other hand, only has to hold the chiles suspended in the smoke while it acts as an offset chimney, so a cardboard box works fine. In the past, I've found taller boxes (that held a windshield, or a washer) but this year I just picked up a couple of smaller ones. They were two different diameters though, and instead of trying to fit them together, I found a piece of roof vent flashing, set that on the bigger box, then the smaller box, and taped the flaps of the bottom box to the upper box, just in case the wind came up (and notice that there are bricks holding down the flaps of the bottom box for the same reason). For a more primitive option, depending on your soil type, you could dig a firepit and smoke trench, covering both with metal or even rocks, and then add your cardboard smoke box.

Next, you need some way to suspend the peppers in the rising smoke. A pan poked full of holes could work, but isn't ideal - the peppers would tend to steam in their juices more than dry. In the past, I've strung the peppers on lengths of string, and hung that draped across dowels poked through the box. That's not too bad, depending on how you want to use your chipotles. If you're just dropping them whole into a pot of soup, it's ok, but if you're planning on grinding some into powder or making some in adobo sauce the string can be difficult to deal with. A wire basket or a rack that won't allow the chiles to drop through is best. I bent a piece of hardware cloth into a tray, supporting it with the (cut-down) cardboard divider inside the box plus a couple pieces of coat hangers stuck through either end of the box.

The best woods to use for smoking the chiles are from fruits or nut trees. If that's not possible, hardwoods are the next best. You just don't want to use pine, mesquite, or other resinous woods. I lost a nectarine tree to borers this year, and always save the prunings from my fruit trees, so I had a nice supply of smoking wood. The night before, I soaked half the wood pieces so they'd burn slower and cooler. Be aware that once you start up with the smoke, you will be perfuming your entire neighborhood. But smoking chiles smell like food, not smoldering leaves, so the neighbors just might drop by with their mouths watering to see what's going on.

It's always best to be prepared when playing with fire, so I pulled the hose over, on at the faucet and closed off with a twist valve. Aries also brought the fire extinguisher out of the garage, just in case. I started a small fire in my firebox, and while I waited for it to get going, I pulled the stems off the jalapenos and loaded up the basket. I used all my red ones, those partially changed, and then some of the green ones with white corking (very desirable in chipotles - don't ask me why).

Once I had a nice little bed of hot coals in the firebox, I added a couple handfuls of soaked wood and then put a piece of metal over the top, held down with a couple smaller bricks. I sat out to watch for a while, just to make sure everything was holding together ok. Every hour or two, I'd add more wood, and turned the chiles a couple of times.

Low and slow is the way to go with chipotles - both for the best flavor and to ensure ones that will last in storage. It's better to stretch it out over a couple of days than to try and hurry up the process with more heat. Let the fire burn out overnight, and start it up again the next day. I smoked my chiles all day, but rain was forecast for tomorrow. I just pulled the cardboard boxes away from the pipe and set them in the garage for the next day and a half. The photo above is after another afternoon of smoking, and I have them going again this afternoon. If you're in a hurry, the jalapenos will dry faster if cut in half and seeds removed. You can also dry them in a dehydrator or your oven until wrinkled but not stiff, and then smoke them (doing it in reverse will also work, but your house will smell like smoke for days). Finished chipotles are hard, lightweight, and dark brown in color. Ones that are still leathery won't store as long. Once the chipotles are dried, store them in jars with a rubbery seal or in an airtight plastic bag.

To use, drop one into a pot of beans or soup, and remove after cooking (or dice the rehydrated chile and stir bits into the pot to taste). They add a rich, smokey, bit of heat. If you want to grind them into powder, they might need to be dried further, until they can be broken in half. I use lots of mine to make a big batch of enchilada sauce (pressure-canned) every couple of years. Or make up a batch of chipotles in adobo sauce, rehydrated chipotles pickled in a tomato-based sauce.

Monday, 5 October 2009

When heating with wood

by Francesca

chimney 1

In the old days, my elderly neighbor tells me, her husband used to hike each springtime up the valley to their part of the forest, fell trees, drag them to the stream at the foot of the valley and float them down it, and finally, haul them up to their house with a donkey. Then my neighbor and her father-in-law would saw them up with a two-handled saw, a job that took many days to complete, and that, like all her other farming chores, she'd do even when she was heavily pregnant.

Nowadays, getting firewood is a little less strenuous: my family, like our elderly neighbor and most of the other villagers, buy it from the local woodcutters, a husband-and-wife team with two grown sons who earn their living exclusively from this occupation. Most houses in our village are heated with firewood, and the thick forests on the hills around our village have for centuries been a source of fuel for the inhabitants. These forests are a jigsaw puzzle of separate, interlocking landholdings, indistinguishable to me but clearly mapped out in minds of the villagers: my neighbors will point to a specific tree immersed in the greenery far across the valley, and say, “That’s our tree.” The reason why these woods are still thick is that, with the wisdom of experience, the villagers have always managed them sustainably, cutting the trees selectively on a seven-year cycle to allow for regrowth. The woodcutter and his family still do this today.

chimney 2

Since moving here, I’ve learned the numerous advantages to heating with wood. I see how it supports a small local business, and employs a renewable energy source. Plus, by buying our wood from someone we known, we avoid using dubious scrap wood and certain kinds of pellets, which can be coated with paints or chemicals and thus emit toxic fumes when burnt. Wood, like any fuel, emits particles and gases as it burns, but the research I've done suggests that burning wood produces substantially fewer greenhouse gases and pollution than natural gas, the other heating option in our area.

Because it takes some work, we make the process of heating our house a family undertaking, and all of us pitch in: my 10 and 12-year-olds are in charge of restacking our indoor woodpile, collecting kindling, and sweeping up the ashes in the fireplace (some of which go in our compost bin, but only in small quantities, since wood ash is quite alkaline). And over time we've learned a few tricks that help us do our heating more cheaply and efficiently:

1) Get to know your local firewood
Hardwoods release more heat, make longer-lasting fires and produce better coals than softer woods. They cost more, but are often worth the extra money.
2) Dry out your firewood properly
Wet wood burns less efficiently than dry wood, and causes creosote deposits in the chimney that can lead to dangerous chimney fires. So it's always best to burn your wood when thoroughly dry. However, wet wood is often cheaper, so you can save money by planning ahead and buying your wood in late spring, when it's wet, stacking it outdoors in the summer sun to dry, and then moving it to a sheltered storage area for the winter.
3) Be ready to start your fire quickly
When you heat with wood, it takes more than just pushing a button to warm your house when you wake up in or come back to a cold house! Keep an ample supply of firewood handy, as well as firestarters to get the blaze going quickly. Store-bought firestarters are often expensive and sometimes even toxic, so I recommend making your own.

We use two different kinds of firestarters:

1) Pine cones

pine cones 1

Cones contain lots of pitch and therefore burn easily: they make excellent and free fire starters, and are fun to collect! As fall approaches, in fact, our family walks and the childrens' adventures in the woods often produce a supply of pine cones, which we'll use to start our winter fires.

2) Homemade wax & sawdust firestarters

fire starters 7

We make these with candle ends we've saved up during the year, and sawdust we've scooped up where the woodcutters saw their logs.

Here's how you can make them:

Homemade firestarter tutorial

- This tutorial is not for children, with or without adult supervision. It is intended for adults only.
- Be careful while making your fire starters: you're working with inflammable materials.
- Make several small batches rather than one large batch: don't risk having inflammable melted wax boil over onto a hot burner.


fire starters 1

Candle ends
Large can (a coffee can works perfectly)
Large saucepan, bigger than your can so that it will catch any wax spillage
Newspaper cut into rectangular pieces (size depends on how much sawdust and wax you use per firestarter)
Hot pad


1) Melt wax

fire starters 3

Put at least 1" of water in the saucepan. Place a few candle ends in your can, and put the can into the saucepan. Put the saucepan on the stove at very low heat, until the water reaches a gentle boil. Wait for the wax to melt ~ remember, you're handling inflammable materials, so don't leave unattended.

2) Add sawdust

When your candle ends are completely melted, turn off the burner, but don't remove the can from the water: wax solidifies surprisingly quickly. Add the sawdust little by little to the wax, stirring, until all the liquid wax has been absorbed. (Hold the can with the hot pad - it gets pretty hot!)

3) Wrap up your firestarters

fire starters 6

Scoop out up to 1/4 cup of your mixture, and place on a piece of newspaper: roll up, candy-wrapper style. (PS I couldn't resist some local color: the newspaper reads "Lasagna, a warm castle made in the home," which sort of fits this tutorial!)

We've also used egg cartons instead of newspaper, pouring the wax and sawdust mixture into the individual egg cups and then cutting them apart when the mixture hardens. However, we found that this method took more time, and that the firestarters ignited faster when wrapped with a generous layer of newspaper.

As someone with an incredibly low tolerance for cold, and a constant desire to improve my wood fire techniques and technology, I'd love to hear how other people go about heating their homes with wood!

Also, The Wood Heat Organization, a Canadian NGO, has an excellent free downloadable Guide to Residential Wood Heating here.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Making Time To Do Nothing

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches

I planned this post before I read the wonderful post yesterday by Bel about Burnout. It is a post I could really relate to. When I left the corporate world I had so many ideas, so many plans and oh so many lists. I wanted to learn to knit, sew, crochet, grow my own fruits & veggies, have flowers perfect for giving away, learn how to make jam & preserves, and bread too. I could just see myself being an amazing cake maker, flower arranger and seamstress. I look back now and see just how much expectation I was putting on myself and what a recipe for disaster it was going to be, of course at the time I couldn't see it. None of the veggies I tried to grow this year worked, neither did the strawberries. My knitting is moving along at a snail's pace, we won't discuss my sewing abilities or crochet skills.

The truth was, I was transferring the busyness of a corporate career into busyness at home. I was measuring success by how many new skills I learned and how bountiful my growing abilities were. Hardly simple and hardly joyous. It took one failed crop to make me realize that I was supposed to be learning to live a new, simpler, quieter more joyous life, not a life measured by the number of skills I had. I knew there had to be a better way, a more balanced way, a more wholesome way.

So I stopped, instead of daily and weekly lists of achievements I must accomplish, I created a vision of experiences I'd like to have and either realistic time frames or no time frames at all. I'd like to crochet a blanket for someone who is homeless or a child in an orphanage, not become an expert in crochet. I'd like to grow some fruit and make a fruit salad with fruit from my garden, not be inundated with more apples that I know what to do with in year one of my new journey - although I hold out hope for year 5 or 10 ;0). Simple changes & less pressure have made all the difference, I've gone back to seeing a simple life as a joyous one, not something I'm failing miserably at.

Over the past two weeks on my personal blog I've been blogging about reclaiming simple Sundays. There are no rules, just an acknowledgement that for most of us each day is filled with tasks we "need" to accomplish and lists of things to do. The point of reclaiming one day each week to do simple activities is to find joy, to make time for nothing in particular, to step away from errands, away from shops, away from stress and just be alone or together, making time for the joy found in nothing.

I've already found with just two days dedicated to nothing more than long walks, or a spot or knitting, perhaps some prayer or quiet reflection that there is a great deal to be said for nothing, and that nothing is perhaps filled with the most important somethings.

Do you practice setting time aside each week for quiet reflection, peaceful activities and rest?