...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


Creating New Spaces

The new "library" in our entryway by day
And by night
Wintertime often brings house projects (i.e. the kitchen remodel last year).  This past week we had a new built-in completed by our contractor who has now worked with us to execute several of my interior designs.  This was another step to maximize the space in our small, fairly energy-efficient home so we can stay here forever.  I've started calling it "Operation Stay Small."  Though our house is considered a "Bay View Bungalow," it's not a typical bungalow.  We have a fairly spacious living room compared to most as well as a good size entryway just beyond our vestibule.  For a couple of years now I've been challenged with how to best utilize the space in the entryway.  Previously we had my grandparents' hall tree (which has now been moved to the vestibule) and a long bench, which served as a plant stand, but really not the seating area I'd originally envisioned.  After looking at the space long enough I figured out that we could put in bookcases and an armoire--to make a front hall closet, which many bungalows don't have.  After completion I realized this space acts as a whole new room--especially b/c we don't use our front door all that much so it's not too often a traffic path.  Basically, we love it and I'm now calling it "the library."

Before (I had a bench on this wall prior to remodel)
Wiring is done, new outlets are in place, and the old bathroom access
(no longer in use) is sealed over (on the R)
Installation complete
"Armoire" with slide in doors
Bottom "hatch" for shoes
Repurposed chevron drawer pulls I found for
25-cents each at the ReStore.
View from the front vestibule as the door is opened
My latest thrift store find.  A vintage Jasper Chair Company
armchair for $20, in beautiful condition.

Many of our former decorations fit well
A vintage wall mirror I also thrifted, $7.  Didn't
know if I liked it at first, but now I'm in love with it.
A vintage folding camp stool I've had for over a decade
makes a perfect occasional foot rest.
And it stows perfectly underneath so it's not in the way
when I'm vacuuming
This will be my new winter reading haven.
View from the living room

I chose the north wall so the built-in would frame this beautiful original
stained glass window.  The green candle holders were thrifted for a couple
of bucks.
Bits of nature on top of the built-in
I'm not much into knicknacks, but some of these
pieces have been with us for ages.  This is Ben's
little bronze Scottie Dog.

Ben's bronze shoe full of Chilean
coins from his life abroad 
We have at least one known aviator geek in the
house.  I found this wooden airplane at the
antique flea market years ago and had to get it
for him.
Metal leaves I've had since high school.
Drawers and other bookcases were glad to be relieved of all the books I've
hoarded from various used book sales around the area.
V's egg carton caterpillar
There are also some labyrinth lovers in
the family.
Musical wooden frog, which turns out to be
a great Montessori toy.
Some of our "science" and "poetry" books
including my favorite "The Gas We Pass," which
is a cherished b-day gift from a college friend. 
Gardening and more Science
Astronomy and large poetry books
Finally a comfy place for all my vintage
field guides--I love the illustrations.
Gardening books alongside many of the
Heinemann Library books Ben edited when he

worked in Chicago.


Eating Well on a Budget

One of my favorite wall hangings in our kitchen.
This pretty much sums it up.

    I could think of a million different titles for this post: Committing to Health in 2013, Eating Organic For Less, Quality Food vs. Quantity, Discovering the Hidden Costs of Food...I could perhaps even write a series of posts around such topics.  Regardless, I have a hometown friend and blog follower to thank for prompting me to put this into words.  She contacted me with some of these goals in mind:  "My family and I are wanting to move in the direction of clean eating...cutting out processed foods, refined sugars, add[ing] in more fruits and veggies, lower[ing our] quantity of meat."   But she said once they hit the natural foods co-op the sticker shock made her wonder how to do this affordably.  Excellent questions.

    I'll never claim to be an expert on this topic though I do feel I've gathered lots of resources over the last decade that I'd love to share.  We are so fortunate--perhaps spoiled--here in Milwaukee and statewide to have many amazing small farmers, growers, and food co-ops close by. This friend of mine is up against much more limited resources in east central Illinois which is still mostly corn and bean country.  So here goes.  I'm sure I'm leaving some ideas out and I'm sure others have elaborated on this previously.

    My Advice for Eating More Healthfully on a Budget:

    Thoughts As You Get Started:
    • A major step towards healthier eating is realizing the average American diet could be making you sick.  There are countless sources out there discussing why organic may be better, why genetically modified foods could be dangerous, and why we should consider the whole picture including animal welfare, environmental impact, and labor rights not to mention nutrition when we choose what to eat.  Remember: every time you make a food purchase--whether at a store, restaurant or farmers' market--you are VOTING WITH YOUR DOLLAR.  Essentially you are telling that producer, retailer, or restaurateur "we like this, we want more of this."  So if you continue to consume and support that which you truly don't think is good for your body, your children, your community, or your world then perhaps you should reconsider before opening your pocketbook.  
    • Next step would be a baby step.  Especially if this way of eating is completely new to you and your family, the most sustainable way to approach it is little by little.  If you go from 3-4 times per week drive-thru meals, microwave dinners, or highly processed staple items, you're likely to be quickly overwhelmed with an immediate switch to raw fruits and veggies, whole grains, minimally processed meats and cheeses--especially when the new numbers run through your monthly budget.  As much as I'd love for everyone to clear the shelves of all processed foods, sugary, artificially-flavored, high-sodium products and wake up to a raw smoothie with kale and chia seeds followed by a homemade flatbread wrap with beans, sprouts, and kimchi then dinner of quinoa salad with homemade dressing made with coconut kefir and seaweed (Nutrition Geek Alert: these are truly things I love to eat regularly), it's NOT going to happen overnight in any way shape or form.  It didn't happen that way with me so I wouldn't expect it with others.  
    At the Grocery Store, Farmers' Market:
    • Think of food as medicine.  If you choose clean, healthy, nutrient-dense foods opting for variety, color, local, fresh it can take the edge off initial price shock to think of it as an investment in your health.  Would you rather pay more now for good food or pay loads more later for pharmaceuticals and medical care when your body decides it's had enough?  And it's not just about the return on investment down the line.  I believe that eating better today will contribute to overall happiness and healthiness that may keep you and your family from missing a lot of work and school.  And that can certainly make a huge financial difference financially for some people.
    • Don't believe the hype.  There are certainly lots of wonderful "health foods" out there, but also a lot of gimmicks.  Just because something's labeled "Certified Organic" doesn't mean it's automatically good for you (better than the alternative maybe, but not necessarily "good").  Paul Newman, rest his soul, put his name on organic Oreo-like cookies.  Does that mean you should buy them?  No.  There is such a thing as organic junk food--just because sugar is grown without the use of pesticides doesn't mean it won't still upset your system.  Also be careful with terms like "natural." You may be paying for something you're not really getting.
    • Know what foods are most important to purchase organically.  Carry a list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen when you go to the store.  If your funds are limited, refer to these lists and buy the best you can afford.  Remember, even if it's conventionally-grown but one of the Clean Fifteen and you're not ingesting the worst part of it, there can still be significant baggage in terms of environmental impact and exploited labor (think bananas.)
    • Know that "organic" is not the end all be all at the farmers' market.  Of course organic certification is something to celebrate as it often takes small farmers loads of time money to achieve this status, but for those who aren't able to jump through hoops or can't afford the certification they may opt out of the process while still upholding organic growing standards.  In fact, some local producers might be using "beyond organic" methods as certified organic still allows certain organic sprays that harm beneficial insects.  And corn-fed organic beef is still corn-fed, which has raised questions about the effects on the stomach pH of cattle.  I'd rather look into eating clean grass-fed beef even if it's not certified.  I always tell people to know your farmer.  Go to the farmers' market or visit the farm to check out their operations, ask questions, and develop a relationship.  They'll likely give you a thorough explanation of their practices and philosophy.
    • Buy local.  Whenever possible purchase food directly from your local farmer or grower or at a retailer that sells local foods.  One culprit of a high price tag on organic produce is trucking it thousands of miles from the green fields of California. Certainly look for certified organic local produce, but otherwise "sustainably grown" local would trump cross-country organic in my book.  We're fortunate to have numerous farmers' markets in our city--in the summer one could go to a different market practically every day--and the largest producer only farmers' market in the country right over in Madison.  When you buy local more of your money stays in your community and feeds the local/regional economy.  I consider this yet another investment in health.  A great way to get local fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat, honey, and other value-added products) for affordably is to join a CSA farm.  You're essentially subscribing to 20+ weeks (depending where you live) of fresh, beautiful, clean produce.  Many farms offer various sizes of weekly shares that will feed two or four or more people as well as recipes and stories from the farm.  When you break down the annual cost of a share it can often be as little as $20/week for enough fresh, organic produce to feed four people.  Try doing that at the grocery store.  To offset this expense even more, find out if your CSA farm offers worker shares where you essentially "work for food" each week.  I've been a worker share with our CSA farm for several years.  I began as a field worker/packer where I greatly expanded my gardening knowledge to boot.  A few years ago I switched to an alternative worker share writing recipes for the farm's newsletter and being the personal canner for my busy farmer friends.
    • Look for other money saving avenues.  Whether you're linked into an organic couponing site for your pantry staples, you follow the weekly circulars from your natural foods store, buy in bulk, or take part in a buying club there are other ways to purchase healthier foods on a budget.  Sometimes it takes a combination of these.  If you're in an area that doesn't have a natural foods store or co-op or even a conventional grocery store with organic offerings there are online sources that can also save big money.  I don't advocate taking away from your local independent food retailer, but if saving money on supplements or certain perishable items online allows you to spend more money at the co-op then give it a try.  And don't discount good old bartering--I have paid certain friends with preserves or our garden surplus in exchange for acupuncture, babysitting, and home repair; a reverse trade could surely work as well.  
    • If you eat meat, eat less.  We are able to afford clean meat because we have cut way back on the frequency at which we consume it.  At home we usually only have meat 1-2 times per week. There are plenty of other options like beans, whole grains, and fish from which we get enough protein.
    • Cut back on processed foods.  They're expensive, they're often full of preservatives (even "organic preservatives,") and they aren't always the most nutrient dense.  The graphic below puts it into perspective a little more.  In general, whether food is organic or not, I opt for a product with the shortest ingredient list.
    (From the book sources below)
    In the Kitchen:
    • Cook from scratch as much as possible.  It may sound like a daunting task for those with busy schedules, but if you can find a basic knife skills class in your area and invest in a basic cooking class or two, you may learn a handful of really valuable skills that'll save money in the long run. 
    • Use all of it.  If you're going to spend the money on organic, not only should you make sure all those fresh fruits and veggies don't rot before they're eaten, but it's also good to know how to use every last bit.  It's staggering how much food Americans waste annually.  It's saddening when we think of people in third world countries (or even our own country, for that matter) who have access to little or no food daily.  But it's also sickening to think about the money that's basically being thrown out. So very rarely does any food go into the garbage at our house.  I have learned to maximize every ounce of food--whether that means saving the scraps for soup stock, boiling and pureeing stalks and leaves for "pesto," or juicing odds and ends of fruits and vegetables.  Then after that, it goes into the compost, which allows us to meet our own compost needs for the vegetable garden thereby keeping our garden and yard budget in check (but that's another point.)  A book that greatly inspired me to cook more economically is by Tamar Adler.  I highly recommend it if for nothing else her talent in weaving recipes into prose a la M.F.K. Fisher.  We also shop regularly at an employee-owned supermarket where they have "Reduced Produce" on deep discount.  This may be a bag of organic bananas that's quickly turning or a bag of pesticide-free eggplants that have minor nicks.  I'm not suggesting we dumpster dive like the Freegans (though I commend them for their efforts) but take a second look at perfectly good food that may have a slight imperfection.  If you're able to take it home to cook that evening, there's no reason not to grab it.
    • Learn food preservation techniques.  Whether you take a local class, learn from a friend or relative, or teach yourself via a library book this is a tremendously valuable skill.  You don't have to hot water bath or pressure can your foods to preserve them--drying and freezing are also options.  You can capture the flavors of the season and take advantage of the season's best prices when local veggies are at their peak and abundance at local markets and farms.  There are also health benefits in eating less food out of plastic containers or BPA-lined cans when you preserve them in reusable glass jars.  On that note, there are also environmental benefits...I could go on for days about the advantages of food preservation.
    In the Garden and at Home:

    • Try gardening.  Even if you simply grow your own herbs, organic tomatoes, or salad mix at home or on a community garden plot it's a healthy start for both body and pocketbook.  Look for basic gardening classes in your area and when purchasing seeds or seedlings, consider how much you can afford to lose if nothing grows at all.  My first gardening season I wagered $20 on my container garden.  I ended up saving hundreds of dollars without really knowing what I was doing. After that you can only improve.  You might be pleasantly surprised at how green your thumb actually is and you'll know exactly what's going into/onto your food (if anything.)  You may also gain a better appreciation for professional growers and perhaps further understand the higher, true prices of food.  And you'll get some great exercise and therapy...so go ahead and cancel that expensive monthly gym membership.
    • Prioritize.  Choosing to eat better, cleaner, healthier, more wholesome food has to be part of a bigger picture.  We have made food a huge priority in our lives.  I'll spend as little as possible on what I put ON my body (though still in a sustainable way), but I try not to cut corners on what I put INTO my mouth.  We've chosen NOT to have fancy cell phones, cable TV, live in a big house, take annual extravagant vacations, drive gas-guzzling cars, eat out regularly more than 2-3 times per month, wear fancy clothes and jewelry, maintain luxurious grooming schedules, etc. in order to afford the best food we can. One day someone will point out the irony that Vera is wearing handed down hand-me-downs but bringing organic pastured chicken salad with homemade mayonnaise in her lunchbox.  If a healthy lifestyle is what you want on a tight budget, you've got to make certain sacrifices when it comes to material things.
    • I would also like to point out a few things I think you NEVER have to buy again: salad dressing (shake equal parts oil and acid in a jar with salt and pepper, maybe some herbs), roasted nuts (5 min. at 350F and they're delicious), baby carrots (I'm guilty of this myself, but really, how hard is it to peel and cut up some regular carrots...that's really all that baby carrots are anyway.) Invest in a food processor and never again will you purchase mayonnaise, shredded cheese, slaw mix, pesto, pureed garlic.  The list goes on.  
    • There are books out there that tackle the topic of organic on a budget: Wildly Affordable OrganicGood Meat, and Organic Food: Eating Organic on a Budget (available on Kindle).  And documentaries galore including Food Inc.Forks Over KnivesHungry For Change as well as Genetic Roulette that may give you some insight into factory farming and the conventional food industry.
    The only thing I may not have directly addressed above is my friend's question about cutting out refined sugar.  To that I would repeat "baby steps."  Try to substitute honey, maple syrup, sorghum, or stevia when possible, or start weaning yourself altogether.  Hopefully you'll be so busy eating naturally sweet fruits and filling your belly with nutritious foods that keep your sugar cravings in check that you won't want an artificially-sweetened treat afterwards.  Truth be told, sweets will always be my vice, but I try to make healthier choices.

    I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg.  There are many more sources and ideas.  There's always more for me to learn and the bar keeps being set higher.  For now we all do the best we can. 


    The Homestead in Winter

    Someone is making plans to eventually get urban hens.
    The holidays are mostly over so I want to get my blog back on track to include more about what many of you originally came here to learn--cooking, preserving, gardening, etc.  An FAQ about the urban homestead is "what do you do all winter?"  Before I learned about the ins and outs of the daily lives of farmer friends I always guessed that winter was a time for them to kick back and relax.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  I would never compare our modest gardening operations in the city to the scale or effort of my rural farming friends, but there are similar patterns during the "off-season" and simply sitting on one's behind is hardly in the plan.

    Winter does mean a kind of "hibernation"--especially after the whirlwind that can be the holidays--and I have found myself wishing to crawl into a cave and sleep for months and months.  But while I don't exactly go completely down for the count until spring, I do experience my own torpor.  In winter I find more time to read, knit, sew, bake, plan--gardens, menus, things to preserve, class schedules, travel agendas--and catch up with friends over coffee.  As on a farm, winter's also the time to clean and repair my equipment.  In fact, I just picked up my sewing machine this morning; it's all ready for another 1000 miles.  Winter is also the time to assure that gardening tools and canning equipment are in good working condition.  

    Homestead-wise, winter also finds me managing our basement vermicompost bin, sketching out my dream garden for the spring, and making arrangements to get advice in pruning our fruit trees, as well as getting out to enjoy the Wisconsin winters--ice skating, sledding, and hopefully even some skiing or snowshoeing this year.  

    One thing I'm most excited about is garden planning and seed starting for 2013.  Having some morning solitude while V is at school will give me a little space and time to plan more logically then act as early as the ground can be worked again in spring.   The second thing exciting me most is the travel plans we're making--a few jaunts both near and far for spring and summer, which we hope to execute in the most sustainable ways currently available to us.  We've found pleasure in making camping reservations and saving dates and spaces for a few of our annual warm-weather weekends.  There's so much hope and excitement this time of year though it's also important for us to meditate on the quiet(er) we'll have until spring.

    This winter will be the first downtime I'll truly have had since my daughter started school.  First semester I was getting into a new groove, then there were the holidays, and now I've finally caught my breath and know where I want to go mentally and physically.  My favorite day of the week is Wednesday when I often find time to read, blog, craft, thrift shop, or just sit quietly and drink coffee all morning (that last one is still a dreamworld to me...I mean really, can anyone see me sitting in one place for an extended period of time?  Sounds like the making of a New Year's resolution.) 

    As I mentioned in a previous post, we are still celebrating some winter holidays.  Last weekend we explored Twelfth Night and Three Kings Day.  We made a King Cake (or in this case a Rosca de Reyes) and took down the decorations.   Though I wished I'd had time to pour some surplus wassail on the roots of our apple trees I did not, in fact, make time for the drunken revelry of Tudor England when they used to douse the orchard with alcohol, leave wassail-soaked toast in the branches for the birds, and shoot off their guns to ward off evil spirits.  I would however like to try playing snapdragon some year.  Sounds like a wild and crazy way to begin the carnival season when everyone lives a little excessively all the way through Mardi Gras.  

    Dough after the first rise
    Rolling up the filling--Brandy-soaked Dried Cranberries with Almonds
    Cut, shaped and ready for the second rise before baking
    Studded with halved homemade preserved cherries and baked till golden
    Along with some Shakespeare it'll make the perfect adieu to the holidays
    To get the winter cooking ball rolling again I'm sharing a favorite gratin recipe that I just tweaked this week using beets and turnips instead of the potatoes, parsnips, and turnips for which the original recipe calls.  

    Beet and Turnip Gratin (Gluten-free)
    Peeled Beets and Turnips ready to slice
    Makes about 8 servings

    Once baked and creamy, the turnips and beets will be indistinguishable in both flavor and color, but you won't be disappointed.  I use a hand-held slicer with a ceramic blade.  Such a tool is invaluable and can be purchased inexpensively at an Asian grocery.

    Oil or butter to grease the baking dish
    1 T. butter
    2 T. gluten-free flour (or AP flour)
    1/2 c. vegetable broth (or chicken stock for a richer dish)
    1 1/2 c. milk or cream
    Salt and pepper
    1/4 t. grated nutmeg
    1 lb. turnips, peeled and thinly sliced
    2 medium leeks or 1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
    1 lb. beets (I used red, but golden beets would also be beautiful, but note that they begin to discolor if not used immediately)
    Grated cheddar, parmesan or your favorite melty cheese (optional)
    1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese or other hard cheese
    1/2 c. ground gluten-free crackers, cornflakes, or breadcrumbs (or regular breadcrumbs if you prefer)
    2 T. chopped fresh parsley

    Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease gratin dish (or any deep casserole dish with butter or oil); set aside. Heat butter in saucepan until foam subsides.  Add flour and whisk a few minutes.  Add broth/stock and stir vigorously until well incorporated.  Add milk/cream and whisk until mixture returns to boil.  Simmer a few min.  It should have the consistency of a thin white sauce (a little thicker if you use cream vs. milk).  Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

    Arrange a layer of turnips in the bottom of the gratin dish.  Sprinkle with some of the leeks/onions and a  little salt and pepper and additional optional shredded cheese, if desired.  Add a layer of beet slices and more onions.  Seasoning in between all layers and proceed with the remaining ingredients.  Pour sauce over, cover, and bake 30 min.  Mix cheese, bread crumbs, and parsley.  Sprinkle on top and bake 30 min. more uncovered.  

    Let the layering begin.  Don't forget to season w/ s&p between each layer.
    And layering.
    Cheesy, bubbly goodness in the end.


    Ready for the New Year

    Happy 2013!
    Happy New Year!  We rounded out 2013 with a couple more cultural holidays before capping it off with a New Year's celebration with close friends.  There are a handful more of cultural holidays dangling into January and February that we are excited to explore as well.  But most of all we're thankful for a fresh start and are excited about planning some travels and family outings this year.

    Our Kwanzaa centerpiece (w/ a few makeshift items as we used the
    resources we had available at home):  Kinara (candleholder) with
    mishumaa (candles), mkeka ("straw" mat--ours was made out of
    construction paper), mazao (fruit--V contributed some from her toy
    kitchen), vibunzi (ear of corn for ea. child in the household), kikombe
    cha umoja
     (unity cup--using Daddy's mate cup), and zawadi (modest
    gift--we chose V's beaded bracelet.)
    Our karamu (Kwanzaa feast) with Squash, Lentil, and Chickpea Stew w/
    Peanuts and Cilantro; North African Spiced Carrots; Southern Kale; and
    Fresh Fruit Salad with Whipped Cream
    Boxing Day Feast of Ham, Smashed Garlic Peas, and
    Parsnip and Potato Hash Browns.
    Helping prepare a Breakfast Casserole for our NYE
    overnight guests.  V cut the chicken sausages and
    learned how to crack eggs
    Cardamom Pistachio Rice Pudding for NYE dessert--whoever found the
    whole almond in their cup will have luck all year. 
    Cooking down a pot of Southern Style Collards for
    our auspicious NYE menu.
    Lots of lucky foods on our table:  Hoppin' John,
    Collards, Lentil Soup, Pork, Fish (Herring), and
    other offerings to round of the evening with good friends
    And we welcomed 2013 with our neighbors grilling
    weinies and sipping champagne in the park at noon on
    New Year's Day.