Showing posts from 2014

The Last Harvest of 2014: Brussels Sprouts

2014 might go down as the Year of the Brussels Sprout here at Ye Olde Port Potager. Although we didn't end up with a big crop, we managed enough for one dinner, which is far better than the abject failures of the past.

Brussels sprouts are challenging because they are gardening's longest game. We planted the seeds way back in the middle of April, and that was even a couple weeks late thanks to last winter's unrelenting polar vortex. They are slow growers, and it wasn't until September that we had buds:

Those tiny buds form just above each leaf, and on September 1 we broke the leaves off of half of our  plants to encourage the buds to develop. For the other half, we topped them:

Both methods perform the same function: get the plant to grow some new leaves. It's just that the new leaves we want are shaped like tiny cabbages. 
Five or six weeks later, the ones that we topped had some nice development of sprouts near the top, but not so much growth farther down the st…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Hobbies, Part 2

This is it: the final Trim the Fat Tuesday budget cut! In looking over our budget this month, I realized that we could easily

Cut a little more out of our hobby budget for the coming year.

As I mentioned before, our hobbies include things like Kirk's entry fees for races and triathlons, some theatrical production fees, rink admission for skating, and other stuff like that. It also includes materials for costume building on Halloween:

The hobby budget does not include the garden. That's filed under groceries, since it's kind of more like a family farm than a hobby at this point.
Anyway, looking back over our budget and comparing it to our actual spending in 2014 revealed that our hobby barters and previous cuts have been so successful that we still have a surplus in this line item. To start banking that savings instead of letting it get frittered away, I'm going to officially cut $5 more from the hobby budget each month, since we're not missing it anyway.
By th…

Sunday Dinner: Roast Beef

Last night we had a pretty excellent Sunday supper. It was all delicious, but can you spot the star ingredient?

Our colorful wintertime plate included herbed mashed potatoes and gravy, a really tasty rosemary roast dressed with horseradish, roasted carrots and parsnips, and (drumroll) Brussels sprouts!
If you have been following this blog for some time, you know that growing Brussels sprouts has been an ongoing challenge for us. This year we finally had some worth harvesting, and last night we enjoyed them sautéed with just a touch of maple syrup. They were sweet and tender after spending a good month out in the cold, and I will give a full accounting of the successes and failures of the Brussels sprout crop later this week.
For dessert we opened up the spiced peaches that Jonas made back in the summer:

True to their name, they were very, very spicy. Luckily, these were very ripe and very sweet peaches that could stand up to the powerful amount of cinnamon we put in the jar. Still, I…

Christmas Dinner: Spinach Pasta

Our Christmas dinner is not a tradition that rises from the garden, but rather is a reminder of our (admittedly relative) poverty when we first lived together in North Carolina. 
That first year that we lived together, while I was finishing college and student teaching and Kirk was learning some very useful farm skills as an interpreter at the living history museum at Old Salem, we lived on very little money. We did the grocery shopping at the local Kroger with a carefully planned list in one hand and a calculator in the other. If I'm not mistaken, our budget was $25 for the week, and if we went over the limit, we took things out of the cart and put them back. Some weeks we had enough for everything plus pickles; other weeks we did not. 
This budget led to a careful exploration of pasta and stir fry dishes, and we learned just how far a single cut of meat can be stretched. We regularly split a chicken breast in half to share for dinner.
So for our first Christmas dinner together,…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Entertainment Budget, Part 3

As the year draws to a close, we've decided to challenge ourselves to take one last bite out of our entertainment budget by (once again)

Cutting an additional $10 per week out of our entertainment budget.

Kirk and I debated about this one for a while. We've managed to get used to our past entertainmentcuts without too much trouble, but this last one seems like it could be more challenging. But that's kind of the point, isn't it?

I think this last cut will force us to decide whether eating out is how we really want to spend the money. We tend to get lazy about cooking sometimes and just order pizza or go out for a burger. With a tighter rein on the entertainment budget, we'll have to examine those choices a little more carefully. Do we really want to spend the money on so-so Chinese food just because someone brings it to our door? Sometimes the answer will be yes, but I think it might often be no, if the trade-off is skipping a movie or round of mini-golf. Either wa…

Cherry Bounce, Part 3

Back in August we gathered chokecherries and used them to infuse some local rum to make old fashioned cordial called Cherry Bounce. Now that it's December and the cherries have been soaking away in alcohol for the last four months, the Cherry Bounce should be ready. Here's what it looked like when I brought it up from the basement, where it had been sitting on a cool, dark shelf: 

It's hard to tell in this photo, but the liquid is now a totally dark black-purple — the color of black raspberry juice, but barely translucent at all. I set up the bowl with the handle from the stand mixer with a mesh strainer on top to catch all the little chokecherries:

I was a little surprised at how dark the liquid was when I poured out the first jar. The dregs were even a little thick looking. The chokecherries now look soft, and their skins are no longer shiny:

I tasted a chokecherry first, and they are definitely spent: totally tasteless, and certainly nowhere near as tart as when we pic…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Raise

This is a little bit of a cheat because I'm not technically making a cut in spending. After much haggling in our latest round of contract negotiations, though, we did end up getting a raise this year. I will therefore

Move all the extra income from my raise immediately into savings.

It's actually easier for me to consider this extra money since it wasn't in my check from the beginning of the school year. We usually use that amount for our annual budget, but now my suddenly higher checks will feel more like a bonus since our budget is already accounted for. The trick here is to earmark that cash for savings right away, before we get used to having it lying around, and before it just sort of disappears into the checking account where it could be frittered away on goodies from the local bakery or a pellet gun or something.

My raise comes to $902.29 for the year, which is $676.72 after taxes. Prorated out to 12 months, that's $56.39 extra a month to add to our savings. Not…

Squirrels Are Assholes, Part 673

I've written a lot here about how much I hate squirrels. They eat our fruit, dig up our bulbs, and now it looks like they are following me to work.
Ok, so I'm sure it's far more likely that our Newburyport Squirrels just called up their Brookline cousins to mess with me. They probably gave them my license plate number, because just look at what these assholes are up to now:

Have you ever heard of squirrels building nests in the engine block of a car? Me neither, but apparently it's a thing. 
Luckily for me, this is not my car. This is a co-worker's car, and this is the second squirrel nest she's had to dig out from under the hood of her car. It's happening to lots of other people who park under the trees at work as well. 
The squirrels must be fast workers, because this all happens during the course of just one school day, and when you smell burning leaves while you're driving home, you know you have a problem.
No tales of axe-murdering squirrel hitchh…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Gas Station

I've been watching gas prices lately (when you drive almost 100 miles a day, you start to take in the scenery). There's a pretty wide variety, but I think I can make an easy cut by planning ahead to 
Make the weekly fill-up at the cheapest possible gas station.
I typically hate stopping to put gas in the car, but I'll admit that it's been borderline-enjoyable for the past month or so. Each time I pull into the gas station, the gas is just a little cheaper than the last time:

This gas station is my preferred spot; the cheapest places I've found on the North Shore are in Peabody, which I drive through every day. Gas here along Route 1 is way cheaper than in Boston or Newburyport. I usually fill up during the commute.
But … sometimes I don't. And then sometimes we run out of gas on the weekend, which forces us to fill up at the expensive gas stations at home.
With a little advanced planning, I should be able to cut out those pricey Newburyport gas station trips en…

Potato Cakes

Yesterday, after completing our last bit of gardening for the year, Kirk made a really delectable lunch from some odds and ends. Not that you could tell — it looks like a fancy-schmancy tapas plate:

These are two potato cakes garnished with some creamed spinach with carrot ribbons and turkey gravy. The kids were about to head out to the third performance of their Christmas play, and we wanted them to have a hot lunch to tide them over, but didn't want it to be too heavy. This was perfect.
It was also a perfect way to use up the inordinate amount of mashed potatoes and gravy we still had left over from Thanksgiving, so I highly recommend it any time your eyes are too big for your stomach in the mashed potato department (which is really just about every time, right?).
Potato Cakes
1 cup mashed potatoes 1 egg 1 tsp. baking powder 3/4 to 1 cup flour
Mix mashed potatoes, egg, and baking powder in a large bowl. Gradually add flour until the mixture feels like a workable dough. Press out…

Winter Clean-Up

Between last weekend and today, we made our final push to clean up the garden for the winter. Though the veggie beds and winter tunnels have been ready to go for some time, we still had to take care of the perennial border:

This is my least favorite task of the whole year, the trimming back of all the perennial plants and the raking of leaves for the winter clean-up. I am always sorely tempted to call it all mulch and let it go, but it is much harder to clean up in the spring before the bulbs come up.
So here we are, out in the cold getting it taken care of before what looks to be a week-long nor'easter heads our way. Also crossed off the list was some plant protection:

This is our little fig tree. Last year we corralled it in a box of leaves, but it was such a harsh winter that that it died most of the way back anyway. Over the summer it did put out two new shoots, and it looks like we may have a fig bush instead of a tree. Because it is so small, we wrapped it in straw and burl…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Granola Bars

This one is short and sweet, and super-easy because it affects the children. Several months ago we decided to

Cut the granola bars out of the grocery budget.

Back in the spring, the kids were eating these glorified candy bars like they were going out of style. We were buying two boxes a week, and they would often be gone by Wednesday. They gobbled down a lot at baseball games, and after the season was over we put a stop to granola bars entirely.
At the height of granola insanity, we were even buying name-brand Chewy bars. These are two boxes for $5, so that was $5 per week, or $20 per month.
But … it's not like we stopped feeding the children. Though we're not buying these any more, they have been replaced by other snacks (fruit, whole grain crackers, homemade bread). To be more realistic, we probably only save half the money, because we still spend half on other, healthier foods for their lunch boxes. 
Still, $10 a month isn't too bad. Especially not for me, who ate maybe…

Thanksgiving Appetizers

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we are still eating our way out of several gigantic containers of leftovers. That is in no way a complaint, by the way--we're loving it.

Perhaps one of the reasons we have so much food left over this year is because we filled up on appetizers throughout the afternoon. Here's our cocktail snack spread:

That all looks perfectly reasonable, until you remember the 22-pound turkey and vat of mashed potatoes waiting in the kitchen. Any other day of the year, this would have been a light lunch.  

In addition to a nice, cured salami and several cheeses, we had bites of red and blue tart, made from some of the last Chioggia beets of the year. Chioggia beets are my favorite because they are extra sweet and not so earthy. When raw they are red and white striped, but after you roast them the colors blend into the pink you see above. Kirk went fairly light on the blue cheese, which probably pleased our younger guests.

The kids also scarfed down …

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Water Heater

This is something we've been meaning to do for years — ever since we moved here, in fact. We have a gigantic, ancient water heater in the basement, and I'm quite certain that it is responsible for most of our electric bill. So we finally got off our asses to
Turn down the water heater to 120 degrees.
Our tank is a beast: 80 gallons, which is way more than we need. It's electric, which is the least efficient thing ever. It's also 15 years old, so we're on borrowed time. We need to replace it soon, but in the meantime, this little change should save us some cash.
There's going to be a lot of rough math here, because the thermostat on the water heater looks like a child's toy:

As near as we can tell, this decal is fake, as there is no knob to turn. Instead, Kirk had to take a screwdriver and move a tiny screw inside that hole to change the temperature. The choices were 150, 125, and 90. It had been set at 125 according to the (surely inaccurate) screw, but we …

Post-Frost Harvest

After a week in which we were struggling to acclimate ourselves to the blustery cold, today we were granted a sunny, almost-warm day. It was actually pleasant to be outside again, so we wasted no time picking up the last of the leaves and cleaning up the last bits of herbs that finally died in the freezing temperatures of the past week.
We also were able to bring in a surprisingly ample post-frost harvest. There's still plenty of food out there under the cover of glass, plastic, or straw, so we should be eating well for the next few months. It may well be the last nice day, but it's not the last harvest. Here's what we brought in today:

This kale bouquet is just a small bit of what we have. A lot of the Russian kale got nipped back by the cold since we left it unprotected, but we fixed that today, and there are still a whole lot of leafy greens left for the winter.

Our last three cabbages were unaffected by the freezing weather, but won't last forever outside. The sma…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Tissues

It's that time of year again: the sniffles are upon us. Wintertime colds and (fingers crossed, not this year) flu mean an investment in several boxes of tissues, and that go us thinking about trying to skim a little off the price of those. From here on out, we plan to

Replace name-brand Kleenex with store brand tissues.

This isn't one of the biggest money-savers in the world, but it is a really easy one. It turns out the Market Basket tissues aren't too bad — a little thinner, but not terribly scratchy or rough. And since our typically wasteful children appear to use just a tiny corner of a tissue tissue before throwing it away, they probably won't notice at all. The boxes are uglier, but whatever.

The math on this involves some estimating, as I can't honestly claim to know exactly how many tissues we go through in a month. Let's say we average two boxes per month for the family (less in the summer, more in the winter).

The box of 160 Kleenex tissues are $2 eac…

Spring Chickens

As I mentioned earlier this month, our chickens are done laying for season, and we will be out of eggs until they stop molting and we can turn the light on in the coop to trick them into thinking it's spring.

Last year they all laid so well throughout the summer that I was able to freeze enough eggs to use throughout the winter molt, and we never had to buy any from the grocery store.

This past summer? Not so much. Dolley is no longer laying at all, and the other girls have slowed a bit with age. (Dolley is a Red-Star hen, and it turns out that this hybrid breed is a rock star daily layer for about 18 glorious months, but then it's over for good, which was not advertised. Luckily for her, she's the smartest, best-trained bird we have, or we might have considered her for soup.) Without her efforts, we still had plenty of eggs to eat fresh in the summer, but not enough to put up for winter. We're back to buying them at the store until we get them laying again (I'm ho…

Herbal Apothecary: Valerian Tincture

About six weeks I ago I harvested some valerian root from the garden and set it out to dry:

I had been warned by many sources that valerian smells terrible and only gets worse as it dries. I also heard that it attracts cats, but neither of these things have turned out to be true. Fletch has never even given it a sniff, despite it being at nose height for a couple of weeks.
As for the smell, it does have an odor — I just don't happen to hate it. It's very hard to describe. It reminds everyone of something, but no one can seem to place it. There's definitely a camphor scent to it — kind of turpentine-y or Mentholatum-y — that lingers in the back of your sinuses. There's also an earthy, root-y smell to it, like a medicinal version of sarsaparilla. And, sometimes, there's a whiff of stinky socks involved, but that's not ever foremost in the bouquet for me, though apparently other people find it unbearable.
Since I had two trays of roots, I decided to try two diffe…