Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Modified Compact Revisited

At the start of the summer, with three kids going into camp or daycare (and the resulting costs), an oil spill gushing in the ocean and making it clear our days of relying on petroleum are numbered, and having felt more and more convicted about traveling more gently on the earth, I entered a modified compact.
Max and Tommy are back in school, and my 10-week experiment is over. How did it go? Here's what didn't go strictly according to plan:
  • Let's get this out of the way immediately. I bought an iPad. Some of the motivation had to do with my job and being conversant in new forms of e-publishing and understanding what some have touted game-changing technology. But it would be disingenuous to say my boss told me she'd fire me if I didn't have an iPad. And, as you can guess, I didn't get this on Craig's List or at a garage sale.
  • When traveling for work, a publishing partner took us to a strip of new, locally owned shops and I bought this t-shirt because it made me laugh out loud, it was on sale, and I felt okay supporting the shop and the local goods.

  • I had not one but two benders at Fabric.com, my newest vice. I swore I wouldn't succumb to the $3/yard sales, but when some designer fabrics dropped to $2.50, I succumbed. I'm weak. I'll admit that. I convinced myself I was just buying it to make gifts for others.

What did go well, and was surprisingly easy:

  • I didn't buy new clothes for myself or the kids.
  • I didn't buy physical books, although read some good ones on my Kindle.
  • I didn't buy new, nonconsumable gifts. I bought my dad some asparagus plants for his birthday. I bought Phil consumables for Father's Day and his birthday, and made him a gift. I made gifts for other family members who had summer birthdays, but I've yet to get them in the mail. I promise guys, they're coming!
  • I didn't even have to buy new canning supplies for the garden -- a loophole I'd left myself. A co-worker with a toddler, who has no time for canning these days, brought me some jars that were collecting dust in her house. (Thanks, Melody!)

Phil and I have a pretty simple budgeting method: We pay our bills and ourselves first, and scrape off any extra money in checking to go into savings, or, if checking's tight, stop spending. So I can't tell you to the penny whether the compact actually saved money. Also, our income this summer was a little atypical, with the iPad purchased from an unsalaried windfall, so I would have to do some heavy number crunching that I don't have the patience or time for to see whether this made a financial impact.

But it's definitely showed me that (iPad notwithstanding), new isn't always necessary.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: This Organic Life

Have you ever read a book that changed the way you viewed the world?

For me, this past winter, one of those game-changers was This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. The friend whose slow-food eating inspired me to start this blog had referenced the book a couple times, but I never got around to reading it. It's not new; I'm very much a Johnny Come-Lately to the table of Joan.

In short, the book chronicles Joan's 40-year-old garden, which moved to a new location when she and her husband moved from a large Victorian home to a funky house on the Hudson River in New York. The garden over the years had grown until Joan, a food advocate, was fairly insistent that she grow all the food she needed -- a huge and life-dominating undertaking. Through talking about the garden, sharing recipes, providing tips for better yield, and relating her noble battles with rodents, Joan also documents major life changes and how often the one constant in her life was the work to be done in the garden.

I was transfixed by this book; it should be on the shelf (or in my case, loaded on the Kindle) of anyone looking to learn more about modern food culture, ways we can take back the family farm, and how to cook a delicious potato and kale soup.

I had trouble envisioning the new space Joan and her husband moved to so I (and I'm not proud of this) cyberstalked her. I put her name into whitepages.com, then plugged the address into zillow.com to see an aerial view of the house. It's fascinating. The backyard, a not large suburban backyard, is plot after plot of garden beds that lead directly to the bank of the Hudson.

Since reading the book, I've read some criticism of Joan. Some disagree that she can be such a staunch food advocate and organic gardener and still unabashedly advocate meat eating. I have no skin in this game. At this point in my life I'm not a vegetarian, and to me, her arguments for eating meat made sense, so I had no issue.

Others have criticized her near-obsession with the garden and growing food, going so far as to contemplate integrating the ashes of a loved one into the garden to enhance the soil. Again, I have no criticism here. This is what she does. This is the constant she was able to come back to when everything around her felt like it was crumbling. Do ashes do more good in a vase on the mantle? Probably not.

I did think she might be a bit of a challenging neighbor; she's borderline strident in her beliefs. And I was a bit off-put by her relaying her anger at an obnoxious neighbor who "stole" four carrots and an onion, forcing her to harvest the onions before they were ready in order to save them from further pillage. I personally love the idea of having enough vegetables to get to share; would it be so bad if she ran low on onions and had to buy some from a local source?

That said, she's made me a firm believer in the power of kale, and the ability of regular folks on suburban plots to affect the food machine.

The book contains about 30 recipes for using the bounty; they are generous with the butter and meat -- my kind of dishes.

Now that the major gardening season is winding down, this would be a good read for starting to plot out next year's garden, or the next forty years of gardening.

Two green thumbs up!

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

You Say Tomato

A couple months ago I was at the Meredith Corporation office in Des Moines on business, and got to take a tour of the Better Homes & Gardens test garden. It was, as you might expect, jealousy-inducing and so peaceful and colorful, one just wanted to tuck in and take up residence. The garden manager explained that the garden is about 12 years old, "really quite young for a garden," and that they've continued to refine and hone it. As she said, "You're never really DONE with a garden." What a comfort to know that even the BH&G staff, with their Better Garden, sees gardening as iterative.

Which is a long way of saying that my tomato harvest wasn't what I expected. I have about 10 tomato plants in (three are grape and other tiny varieties that volunteered when we moved the old compost location). The tomato plants went insane in early summer, growing taller than me before they toppled over. I had visions of being overrun by tomatoes; handing out heirloom varieties to lucky neighbors and keeping the stovetop canner in constant use. I spent a lot of time researching what to do with my bumper crop once it came; perhaps a bit less (some might say no) research on ensuring the bumper crop.

So we're getting a few tomatoes a day, and we're eating them now. I stand at the mangle of bushes and eat cherry and grape tomatoes off the vine. All in all very pleasant, but it's a good thing our winter eating isn't dependent on our Purple Cherokee harvest.

Fortunately this past weekend an old friend and co-worker dropped by. Dave and I worked together my first job out of college, and have stayed in touch over the years. For the past decade he's been a a volunteer at Gingko Community Garden (that's him on the home page!), an urban garden that supplies fresh, organic produce to those in need. He took a quick look at my toppled tomato plants and had a few tips I'll be integrating next year:

  • Prune. Getting rid of the nonproducing (but not downward-pointing) stems will mean a fuller stem and a better harvest. Let the plants more plant energy into creating the fruits, not more foliage.
  • Move the tomatoes to a sunnier spot. My backyard gets ample morning sun to grow lots of things, but tomatoes need lots and lots of afternoon sun. In fact, the huge growth is likely less attributable to my green thumb as to the plants trying to grow and stretch and get themselves to a sunnier spot. Next summer, I'm putting them in the front yard where they'll have constant access to sun. (Dave reminded me, realizing I'm a pretty lazy gardener, that this will mean I'll need to water more often. Noted.)
  • The sunnier spot goes double for the tomatillo plants. I chalked up the fact that these plants only produced sad little empty husks to their being overwhelmed, nay intimidated, by the monster tomato plants. In fact, they probably needed more consistent sun.
  • Stake. In years past, I've forgotten tomato cages until the plants were too big for them. So I was patting myself on the back over the fact that all were in cages this year. Dave reminded me that I also needed to stake them. This could save the current embarrassment of having a small step-ladder next to the garden trying to keep the fruit of toppled-over plants from touching the ground.
With the garden doctor on hand, I also complained as a helpless victim about the bores that had eaten my zucchini plants. Rather than the bushels of zucchini these plants should have produced, I got one -- one -- before the vines rotted and had to be pulled up and replaced with kale. Dave explained that I could actually bury the nasty part of the vine and the healthy part likely would take off and continue growing and producing. Nice tip.

He also tasted my basil and disagreed that it tasted "wrong" and "soapy," and I made a delicious pesto that night.

I'm already planning next year's garden, what I'll do better, what I'll research, where I'll get seeds. Mucho thankso, Dave.

In other news, this one headed off to kindergarten last week. He's taking it like a champ, and has been excited about the bus and chill about having his personal style succumb to a uniform. I'm in denial that he's this big a boy.

I'm going to pretend that she's never going to grow up:

So there.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Three Quick Recipes, Weekend Edition

We had guests this weekend. The kids were over the moon with extra friends on hand to play with, and Phil and I got to visit with two people we adore and who we don't see nearly enough of. When they left, the house was quiet(er), and it was too hot to cook. Sylvie and I tackled our out-of-control basil and made pesto for the first time ever while Phil and the boys were swimming.

When the men got home, the kids had a quick dinner, during which Tommy complained of a sore throat. He went to a MedCheck that confirmed strep. This left me about 15 minutes between getting his prescription filled and the start of Mad Men to make dinner for the local friends who come over for Don Draper and dinner every Sunday night. Fortunately, the pesto made a delicious pasta dish that whipped up quickly and was consumed in about 10 minutes.

Monday, back to work, Tommy home with Grandma, I didn't think of what to make for dinner until I was driving home. The pantry and pressure cooker let me make dinner in about 10 minutes.

One day I'm looking to get back to lingering over cooking. Not now. I've made peace with that.

Fill a food processor with four (packed) cups basil leaves, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup pine nuts, and two peeled garlic cloves. Whir up until it's a smoothish consistency. Then stir in 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and a couple good-sized pinches of course sea salt. If you're not going to use it immediately, put it in the fridge covered by about 1/2 inch olive oil.

Pasta with Pesto, White Beans, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Start boiling about 8 to 10 ounces pasta like rotini. Meanwhile, heat up 2 Tbsp. olive oil and gently cook 1 minced garlic clove for about 2 minutes. Now throw in 1 can drained cannelini beans, about 1/3 cup pesto, about 1/2 cup white wine, and about 1/2 cup drained sliced sun-dried tomatoes in oil (I buy dried and reconstitute in olive oil). Let this simmer/bubble for about five minutes while it cooks down. By this point, the pasta's done, so drain it, add it to the pan with the tomatoes and pesto, stir it around, grab a bowl, and go check on the progress of Stirling Cooper Draper and Price.

Crazy-Quick Rice and Beans
Dump 1 cup jasmine rice, 1 can coconut milk, 1 can drained black beans, and 1 (14.5-oz) can diced tomatoes into a pressure cooker. Cook on high 7 minutes. I didn't add spices, lest the kids turn up their noses (which they did anyway; sigh), but sprinkled some Adobo seasoning and chili powder when it was done. Despite what the kids insist without trying it, I found it delicious.

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