Monday, 7 February 2011

Rejuvenating Popcorn

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

It's hard to grow corn reliably in our cool, mountain setting but we do love an occasional bowl of popcorn as a treat. So it is one of the things we buy to stock the pantry. However, not using popcorn too often usually results in un-popped corn or old maids as we call them. I'm getting a little long in the tooth, so finding one of those by mistake while watching a movie with rapt attention could mean a trip to the dentist.

But, there is a way around that and still have your popcorn too. Dry storage is great for items that need to be dry, but popcorn needs a little bit of moisture to pop properly.

To rejuvenate our popcorn, I just pour water in a clean storage jar, pour it out completely so it just remains damp and pour in the corn. Over a few days, the kernels will absorb the moisture and will be ready to pop. Store in a cool dry place or refrigerator and you're good to go on movie night.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Cast Iron Care

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I love my cast iron skillets and pots. I have 10" skillet, 10" pot with lid that fits both, and an 8" skillet in my kitchen, plus an 8" footed camp oven in with my camping gear. With proper care, cast iron cookware lasts a lifetime - even centuries, if you're lucky enough to inherit the family heirloom pots and pans.

Cast iron is porous. To develop the coveted non-stick black coating on the cooking surface, the pores need to be sealed up, called seasoning. Once seasoned, and with proper care, the coating builds up with use, and your pan just keeps getting better and better. Soap, however, dissolves the non-stick coating, so if your pan has been washed with soap it will need to be re-seasoned. A new, or new-to-you, pan should be washed well, but just this once.

To season a cast iron pan, heat it on a stove burner until warm, and then rub the inside liberally with vegetable oil (or you can use a solid fat, such as lard or clean bacon grease). You want to thoroughly coat the surface, but with no pooling of the oil - the plan is to seal the surface, not set it on fire. Then put your pan in a warm (200ยบ) oven for an hour or two. Again, wipe out any pools of oil, and you should be good to go. Historical note: I can't vouch for this, but one of my old books suggests boiling potato peelings in a cast iron pot for an hour to season it - might work, sealing the pores with potato starch - but I'll stick with my tried and true, oil and heat, method.

No soap! Do not use soap, detergent, coated Brillo pads, or any kind of de-greaser! Plain water works just fine! (Can you tell I had this conversation repeatedly with my husband when we were newlyweds? After twenty years, and a few ruined meals and re-seasoning sessions, I think I finally have him trained). Don't leave cooked food in a cast iron pan - the acids in some foods can pit cast iron, and the iron absorbed by the food can cause a metallic taste if left overlong. Transfer food to a storage container or serving dish, and then clean your pan right away. It doesn't need to be soaked in a sinkful of water for an hour, either. Scrape or wipe out as much food as possible, set it in the sink, and run some water into the pan, preferably while it's still warm. I keep a long-handled nylon-bristled dishwashing brush for cleaning my cast iron - just swoop around the inside of the pan, and rinse. If you really *need* some scrubbing power, pour in some salt or sand, moisten with oil, rub in with a dishcloth (or plain steel wool), and rinse (this method will also remove rust). As an absolutely last resort, I've read that you can fill the pan with warm water, drop in a couple of denture tablets and let set for an hour, and then rinse, without having to re-season it - not so sure about this one.

Drying the pan immediately is crucial too. Rust is the enemy of cast iron. Just like my grandma did, I dump out as much water as possible, and then put the pan back on the burner (or on the top shelf of my oven if I'm baking something), until all the dampness is completely gone from the inside of the pan. Let it cool before storing.

To keep rust away, cast iron is best stored so that no moisture can get inside. For my covered kitchen pan, I put the lid on the pan upside-down, a rolled towel between pan and lid on one side to provide an air vent. For my camping pot, I do the same, along with crumpled newsprint inside to absorb any chance moisture, and then loosely tie it in an untreated cotton canvas bag (also to keep any ashes on the outside of the pan from getting all over the rest of my camping kit). The skillets live in the drawer beneath my oven. If you use a pot rack, and wish to hang your cast iron, first make sure that your rack, plus its attachment to wall or ceiling, can withstand the weight. If, by chance, you do get rust on your cast iron, try removing it with the sand and oil treatment described above. Using naval jelly is a last resort remedy for removing rust - wash well and re-season before use.

I prefer to not use any silicon-based non-stick sprays on my cast iron. Over time and use, a black natural non-stick coating builds up inside the pan. I do keep canola oil in a little refillable dispenser (ok, it's an old rubber French's mustard bottle with a pop-off lid and a twist-close spout) and use a little squirt of oil before cooking most things, tilting the pan cover the bottom as it heats up. Over time, a black scaly crud will build up on the outside of the pan. This doesn't affect either the food or the pan, but if you just have to get rid of it, wait until autumn. Find someplace that still allows burning leaves, and bury your pan in the pile before setting it afire. Dig the pan out of the cooled ashes, wash, and re-season before use. You can also burn the coating off a pan in the embers of a campfire, but resinous woods such as pine can leave an aftertaste if any gets inside the pan.

One last note: All of a cast iron pan gets hot, and holds heat longer than most other cookware. So always use felted wool or heavy-duty cotton pot holders until you're sure the handle is cool. I found out the hard way that cheap, polyester-filled handle holders melt, taking a hot panful of skillet-sizzled cornbread out of the oven - I had to pick and scrape off the ugly little bits of white melted fluff. I also have melted little ridges into the plastic handles of my spatulas, leaving them resting upside-down against the edge of the skillet. Let's be careful out there.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Realistic Budgets

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

Every now and then I think I can trim more off my budget and I try to convince myself that I don't really need to have as many items budgeted for in my monthly plan. Little conversations will run through my head, the more determined side convincing myself I don't really need to keep adding to my health fund because I so rarely get sick. That same voice would seem so sensible when it suggests I don't need a clothing jar because I don't need new clothes. And yet again the voice rears it's ugly head when it tells me mad money is just a frivolous spend. Only what the weaker voice didn't state loudly enough is that mad money is great fall back money, new clothes may be needed if your winter boots break in half and medication may need to be bought if you suffer from eczema.

Living the frugal life can be a worthy pursuit, but if you aren't careful it can make life more complicated instead of helping you simplify. Sometimes in my effort to have as simple a budget as possible I have actually made my life more difficult. Overspending because you haven't spent enough, pulling money from the wrong place, dipping into other funds and feeling overwhelmed are in direct contrast to the simplicity the frugal life can bring. And when you aren't realistic about your needs & aren't actively and practically planning for the worst - you can be in a situation which is a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

I use a jar system to allocate my money and the truth is, whether I like it or not, whether I add in $1 or $50 a week I need to budget each week & month for all of my costs. Even if I wish I could eliminate more in every season of my life I need money jars which represent the truth. And right now my *truth* is I need jars for:

Grocery Shopping
Pet Costs

And while health and clothing usually don't entail monthly spends, knowing there's some money rattling around in a jar to help deal with inconveniences like itchy skin & boots which split in half {and are much needed items since we have yet another 2 months of snow storms ahead of us} helps me live a simple, green & frugal life!

How do you keep your budget organized and on track? How do you make cut backs that are realistic? What are your budget necessities?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Farm eggs

by Francesca

farm eggs 2

We buy our eggs from our farmer neighbors, who keep laying hens in a large chicken coop by the side of our house. These eggs are so fresh that they're often still warm when we get them. Each egg is different in color, texture and size, depending on the age of the hens, their diet, and the time of year. Young hens lay smaller eggs. Sometimes our neighbor warns us to handle them with extra care because the shell is thin and frail, and he'll need to add some calcium to the chicken's forage.

farm eggs 3

These eggs are never clean, but our neighbors have taught us not to wash them before storing them. In fact, eggshells (when they're intact, and come from healthy animals living in sanitary conditions) are coated on the outside with a cuticle, a protein-like covering, which helps protect the contents of the shell from dehydration, and from bacterial infection through the shell's pores. Washing eggs removes this cuticle, which makes it easier for bacteria to enter the egg.


Eggs must be refrigerated. In wintertime, we store our eggs in a basket hanging in an unheated part of the house (centuries-old stone houses are refrigerator-cold in the winter!), but in the summer we keep them in the fridge, stored in a sealed container to avoid possible contamination.

farm eggs 3

Just before we use our eggs, we wash them carefully. Health experts advise to use eggs within two weeks of the time they were laid, and to cook them thoroughly (and not to eat them raw).

Further reading on egg facts and safety here, here and here.

Please don't forget to add the name of your favorite seed company in your country to the list of international seed catalogs here!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Beyond Earth Hour in the Office

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

As many westerners work in office blocks and high rises and Earth Hour 2011 is fast approaching us, many companies now turn off their lights in high-rise office building in cities all around the world as a show of their environmental credibility. Great work, but something is usually missing, and simply turning the lights off for one hour a year is not good enough.  This year we need to go beyond Earth Hour and make the good deeds we perform on this event something much more sustainable. 

Which leads me to the subject of today's post.  Office Vampires, in the form of millions of personal computers (PCs) are left on, sucking the grid dry during the long dark nights and are a massive contributor to the carbon emissions of many large companies. These emissions can be avoided by enforcing energy policies and behavioural changes, but only if workers are informed of the consequences of their inaction. When examined individually, PCs may not appear to be the biggest energy hog in the office, but when you consider the sheer volume of PCs in the world, the energy and greenhouse gas implications are enormous.

Picture this: A green minded gent (yours truly) arrives at work at 0700 Monday morning and curiously thinks, “I wonder how many PCs were left turned on over the weekend?”. The curious green minded gent then proceeds to do a basic energy audit and discovers 64 out of a possible 75 PCs still turned on with their monitors in standby mode with no one on the floor but himself! What a surprise to the green gent, who actually thought that his work colleagues cared about the planet they lived on.

So to do the sums, the green gent needed to make a few assumptions. If most people leave work at 5pm Friday and return at 8am Monday, that would be 63 hours that the PCs were sucking power without any worker using them. If the average power usage of each PC including monitor, with decent power management enabled was about 54 watt-hours, multiplied by 64 PCs, then multiplied by 63 hours of idleness. That is a whopping 217.7 kWh of electricity wasted over the weekend which is more than the green gent uses at home in an entire month! In the state of Victoria, Australia, that is the equivalent to 265 kg of CO2-e. 

So assuming that every floor in the building have basically the same layout, that the workers have the same lax behaviours, and the building had 50 floors, that would be 10,885 kWh of electricity or 13.2 tonnes of CO2-e released into the atmosphere each weekend. With 52 weekends in a year, the waste would amount to 556,020 kWh of electricity or 690 tonnes of CO2-e each year! The impact is amplified in this country due to our dirty coal based energy supply.  Assuming that the cost per kilowatt hour is 19 cents, that works out to be a grand total of $105,644 of lost profit.  You simply cannot ignore losses like that!

That is just one large building in one city out of many millions of buildings world wide. The mind boggles at the incredible savings in money and greenhouse gas pollution that could be made simply and easily, by each worker turning their PC off before they go home at night. 

Now you could add all the micorwave ovens left on for the clock in all the kitchens on all the floors, and the electronic air freshener sprays with in each toilet, the phone chargers left plugged in, not to mention all the lights left on, the rapid boil hot water systems, and the air conditioning keeping the building cool for cockroaches.  Maybe every floor of every building needs a big green switch to shut down everything that doesn't need to be left on on a timer.  Now that would be very energy efficient.

According to Gartner, every year the information and telecom technology industry generates 2% of the world’s carbon emissions - the same as a year’s worth of air traffic. Moreover, PCs and monitors account for 39% of these emissions, equivalent to the emissions of approximately 46 million cars.

So next time you put your jacket on to leave for home, take a minute of your time to turn off your PC and again at the wall switch. You will be making a massive contribution to avoiding catastrophic climate change. This simple gesture will be noticed by others, who then in turn will follow your lead, and before you know it the dreaded Vampires will be no longer live in your office, ne'er a garlic bulb in sight!