Showing posts from September, 2014

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Health Insurance

One of the other perks of Kirk's new job is that it forced us to go back to the drawing board and re-research our health insurance options. Not gonna lie, that's a ginormous pain in the ass. Despite how irritating it is to try to compare plans and change insurers, we were able to

Comparison shop our employer-sponsored health insurance plans for the best deal.

This all seems like a no-brainer, but the (admittedly extreme) hassle factor meant that, whenever possible, we ignored open enrollment and stuck with our current insurance plan, without really checking out the competition. It also didn't help that open enrollment at my job is in May, while Kirk's is in November or December — that made it hard to remember to do an apples-to-apple comparison of all our options.

And, I know, we are very lucky to have so many choices.

We were prompted to shop around when we found out that the health insurance at Kirk's new job was nearly twice as expensive as his old plan. And you…

Homemade Ketchup

I know I won't feel this way in February, but I have to admit: A teensy part of me is looking forward to frost.
You know, the part of me that is tired of picking tomatoes. The part of me that doesn't really need more than 36 quarts of tomato sauce put up for winter. The part of me that just can not chop any more salsa ingredients. 
The part of me that is sick to death of fruit flies hovering around all those tomatoes.
I know, I know. I'll miss them when they're gone (the tomatoes, not the fruit flies — they can go to hell). It's a long winter without fresh tomatoes, and by May I'll deeply regret having maligned their abundance in this post. 
But for now, what to do? There are just so many
Enter ketchup.
We've been looking for something else to make, now that we are fully stocked with salsa, pasta sauce, ratatouille, jam, and soup. We first thought of giving ketchup a try last year, but it only occurred to us after frost killed the tomatoes for the season…

A Seasonal Sunday Supper

September is the most beautiful month here in New England, and we had a stunning day today. In addition to puttering around the garden and taking care of some basic chores, we took time to climb up to the top of the Plum Island lighthouse. It's not always open to visitors, so we were happy to take advantage of this once-in-a-while view of the Merrimac making its way to the ocean:

Not only does September offer the best weather of the year, but it is also the month during which our garden is at its absolute peak of production. We still have all the fruits of high summer (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant), but we also have available just about anything we want from the fall garden as well (sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage, kale). From now until frost (usually mid-October for us), we can have our pick of almost everything we grow. 
For example, tonight's supper is a combination of summer and fall produce on one plate:

We had very summery charcoal-grilled burgers with Rose tomato slic…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Gas Budget

We are always looking for ways to use less gasoline in the cars. As far as I can tell, there are only two ways to accomplish that. You can drive more slowly, or you can drive less often. We've dabbled in each of those areas during the Trim the Fat Tuesday project, but now we're going all in on the driving-less-often concept. Starting this month, Kirk is going to

Walk to work instead of driving.

This has been made possible by his new job in town, which is just a five-minute walk around the corner. The hospital is just behind our back fence:

It turns out that you can now see our garden from space, so if you're looking carefully, you can see just how close we are to the hospital. So close, in fact, that it's not even worth taking the bike out of the garage to get there.
His old commute, on the other hand, was 22 miles each way, five days a week. In dollars and cents, that added up to about $160 per month in gas. Occasionally he would ride his bike as part of a triathlon t…

The Valerian Harvest

Today it is officially autumn, and there is so much still to harvest. Yesterday I brought in popcorn cobs as well as our typical round of fruit (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, strawberries — anything that will spoil if left on the plant too long). I also grabbed a shovel to get at our first valerian harvest.

You can see in the photo above that I broke off many of the stems and leaves before digging up the roots. It's a fairly shallow-rooted plant, so it didn't take all that much effort to get it all out of the bed in one block.
We have two valerian plants in the cutting garden, and I left one to come back next spring:

It's not much to look at right now, but in the springtime it is much fuller and is a darker green. It sends up strong, hollow stalks that are capped with lacy umbrels of white flowers. They smell very sweet — perhaps a bit too cloying, but nice on the breeze. They also look pretty in a vase, athough they don't last long.
But the real point of growing valer…

The Strawberry Popcorn Harvest

Just the other day I mentioned that we still had the dry stalks of our sweet corn standing in the garden to act as a decoy. My hope was to lure any corn-loving critters (raccoons? crows? squirrels?) away from Tiegan's popcorn until it was ready to harvest. 
Well, here's what I saw on the way to the chicken coop for an egg this morning:

One stalk and several ears of popcorn had been shredded up by some hungry animal or another. On second thought, maybe it wasn't all that hungry, or maybe Fletch interrupted its feast, because it left behind several ears that were only partially gnawed:

Time to harvest the popcorn before losing any more to whatever is eating it! In my experience, once an animal gets a taste for something in your garden, it's all over. They'll be back every day (or night) until there's nothing left.
This is Tiegan's corn, by the way. We gave her a four-foot-square patch in which to grow her heirloom seeds of strawberry popcorn back in late May …

Falling Into Fall

The equinox is just around the corner, and soon we will be heading toward the dark days. The chickens are molting rather then laying (Sally remaining our reliable exception, of course). The temperatures (especially in the early morning hours) are cooler, and though we are still several weeks away from frost, the garden has shifted from the lush greens and vibrant reds of high summer to the mellow golds and dusky purples of autumn. I am always sad to see summer go, but there are compensations.

Our very small pumpkin patch has produced a good number of heirloom Long Pie pumpkins this year. The vines have died back almost completely, and the fruits are curing in the waning hours of sunlight. Hopefully they'll have time to ripen to orange before frost.

Our Cherokee Trail of Tears beans are drying on the vines. They are a papery purple now, and I have been slowly picking them so we can shell them before frost. No rush on this project, though. They dry just as well on the plant as off,…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Car Maintenance

What's the worst part about owning a car? The maintenance. It's expensive. It's unpredictable. It's un-fun. So for me, the very best part of getting rid of our second vehicle is
Adjusting the car maintenance budget to reflect actual spending in this area.
Because actual spending is gonna be a whole lot less.
I should note that this is the time of year I go through every line item on our budget (because of course we have a budget, and you definitely should, too) and use data from the previous year to inform our projected spending for the coming year. In our house, the fiscal year aligns with the new school year, because that's when we get our raises (you know, if our contracts have actually been negotiated on time and raises are a thing that year). So in September we use our new paycheck numbers to tally actual income, and we go through our previous year's actual spending to make the most educated guess on each budget line item for the coming year's spending…

It's Fancy Jam Time

We're in the nineties, Mother. It's fancy jam time. ~Albert Brooks, Mother
This week was all about the jam-making. In edition to our first shot at grape jelly, we also made our first strawberry jam. Back in the spring (when most strawberries are coming in), I ended up freezing all the strawberries that we didn't eat, and figured I would eventually get around to making them into jam. And since I was already elbow-deep in the grape jam process, I threw another pot on the stove and got started on the strawberries on the same day.
Once again, I was looking to make this jam with as little sugar as possible, so that all the great strawberry flavor could shine through. To do this, I simplified Melissa K. Norris' recipe which, like the adjustments I made to the grape jam, used more lemon (for acid and pectin) and less sugar to achieve the jelling the jam needs to set up. Here's how I made it:
1. Gather the ingredients: 3 lemons, 8 cups of whole strawberries (frozen work ju…

The Concord Grape Harvest

We're having a big year with the grapes. Not only did we finish the arbor, but we have also enjoyed harvesting at least a few grapes of each of our four varieties. Our best crop of grapes by far is from our Concord vines. Unlike last year's harvest of just a handful of grapes, this year we have had literal bunches. We've been snacking on the them in passing for a week or two, and this week I brought in a little over three pounds:

Too many grapes to eat before they go bad, so it's time to make grape jam!
As always, I checked the Ball Blue Bookfirst, but then went online to try to find a lower-sugar version. The last time I made a no-pectin jam from the Ball Book, it was good but way too sweet. These grapes taste so good off the vine — musky grapey-ness, but also lots of floral notes and a touch of acidity — that I didn't want to obliterate their flavor with all that sugar. 
I found a low(er) sugar grape jam recipe at Epicurious, but I played with it to use even les…

Kids' Corner: Strawberry Fool

We've been enjoying our bonus round of late summer strawberries for the past couple weeks. We have two day-neutral varieties — Tribute and Seascape — that have a re-bloom in August. These berries ripen continuously until about mid-September, when we start to lose the light and heat required to get them nice and red. 
Tiegan has been leafing through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Family Cookbook a lot lately, and over the weekend she up and made a dessert recipe all on her own. She told me later that she changed the recipe as she went, because she didn't think it needed as much sugar — a smart chef knows the quality of her ingredients! Below she explains her adaptation of the River Cottage recipe for Strawberry Fool.
Strawberry Fool
Here's my recipe: 1 cup of pureed strawberries 1 cup of heavy cream 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar
I whipped the heavy cream and folded in the pureed strawberries. Then I folded in the sugar but not thoroughly so that you co…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Insurance Review, Part 3

This is another post about how we get to save a lot of money by getting rid of a car. There are going to be a bunch of posts like this, because cars are expensive. I hope you can find a way to get rid of one too, because it's life-changing. For example, you can

Stop paying for car insurance.

Yup. When you don't have a car, you don't pay insurance. And they don't make you get bike insurance, so Kirk is pretty much golden on this.

As you may recall, we recently changed our auto insurance coverage because of the insanely good rates GEICO was offering us. Well, that's getting even cheaper by the end of the month when we get rid of the Focus for good. GEICO's website is also easy to use, and gave me a great snapshot of exactly what portion of the insurance costs go to Kirk's car:

So with about 15 seconds of research, we can see that our yearly insurance savings comes to $218.70, or just about $18 per month. That's not nearly as much as it would be if the Foc…

One Last Batch of Pickles

This year I missed almost all of pickle-making season while I was in Costa Rica; Kirk took over all pickling duties while I was away. Now that it is September, we are not sorry to see the cucumber vines die back, as we completely overestimated our cucumber needs this year. Before we rip them out, though, we made one last pass to gather all the pickling cukes of gherkin-size or greater. 
This last pickle contains no dill, since our dill went to seed before we could get another patch up and growing for fall. That's just as well, since all of our other pickles are made with dill (as you would expect). With that flavor off the table, I went with ginger (because we had it) and some Indian spices for a completely different flavor. They should taste similar to the Curry Sour refrigerator pickles I've made in the past, except that these will be fully fermented and canned.
Ginger Garlic Pickles
3 pounds of small pickling cucumbers 2-4 fresh grape leaves 2 heads of garlic, separated int…

Trim the Fat Tuesday: The Shower Head

We've been meaning to get to this one all summer, and after a few false starts and a lot of time away, we finally managed to

Switch out the shower head for a low-flow model to save on utility costs.

Our old shower head was a (post-1992) standard, 2.5 gallons per minute model. It was a rain-style one, and quite a nice little comfort upgrade when we moved into this house.
But it uses a lot of water, and the extra comfort it offers also encourages loooooong showers. 
Especially if you're under the age of twelve. Those guys have no concept of time, and we are always yelling at them to get out of the shower. Fifteen- and 20-minute showers by the younger set are not unheard of around here, especially if we aren't playing much attention to what's going on upstairs.
Perhaps a timer is in order as well. The most obnoxiously beeping one we can find, to help hurry things along.
Until we cure our resource-intensive progeny of their wasteful ways, the new, 1.5 gpm shower head should…

Himrod Harvest

Yesterday we harvested our first Himrod grapes!

That basket is the harvest in its entirety. It's maybe about as much as you'd get in one bag of grapes at the grocery store, but for us represents several small bunches from two vines. We planted our grapes back in the spring of 2012, and most vines have fruited this year. The Himrod vines are our second-best producer of grapes, and they are definitely our earliest to ripen. Since they are green grapes, the only way to tell was to taste them. A week ago I had some sour, pucker-producing taste tests, but now they are ready to go.
Since there aren't that many, harvesting them was a snap. They are easy to see on our newly re-trained vines, and all it took was a few quick snips of the stems with kitchen shears. 

These long, thin bunches bunches aren't packed full of grapes, and the grapes themselves are fairly small--about the size of raspberries. But they are sweet, with a just a little bit of tanniny tartness in the skins.…