Sunday, August 17, 2014

Frugally Uncoupling: How to Break Up without Breaking the Bank


Divorce is pretty much universally challenging, but it doesn't need to be the worst thing to happen to you, and it doesn't need to break the bank. Despite the common perception, it does not have to be a huge financial sinkhole, a source of everlasting angst, or the subject of your child's future therapy sessions.

When my partner of ten years and I first split up, I knew none of this, and I was worried that our formerly happy lives were going to hell. There are so few examples of happy divorces, and so many fine examples of the damage a nasty divorce can do to people, to their relationships, and their finances. I'm not saying our breakup was completely pain free or easy, but I felt it was important to write this article to share how it's possible to end a romantic relationship, after living together and raising kids for ten years, while still being frugal and friendly.


I have friends who have been duking out the terms of their divorce, and particularly the custody of their children, for over three years. They never agree on anything, and are each a source of endless misery to the person that they used to love. They spend ridiculous amounts of money simply communicating with each other (or failing to), because it basically all has to be done through their lawyers. It is not easy for their kids to be in the middle of such animosity, and it's stressful for both of them to be spending all of their money on this ongoing fight. This is a particularly bad case, but many other couples I have known are in similar, if less inflamed or drawn out, legal battles.

Nik and I are adamant about not letting our relationship and communication devolve like this. In fact, since we were never legally married and don't have to get a legal divorce, we haven't had to involve a single lawyer in our process of separation. In our ten years together we've pretty much always been kind to each other, and aren't about to stop being kind just because we are no longer going to spend the rest of our lives with each other. We are still co-parenting, and want to continue to do that the best way we can. Breaking up has not turned us against each other. We both see that hurting each other would pretty much directly hurt our kids as well.


Speaking of the welfare of children, I admit to experiencing a short-lived fear that this would be the end of their happy, carefree childhood. That us breaking up would signal the collapse of all things good for our wonderful family, and that our kids would forever resent us for not "working things out" with each other. But here's the thing:

Pre-breakup, we were a close-knit nuclear family. Post-breakup, our family has actually grown and expanded. Both Nik and I are in new relationships with wonderful people who our kids love. The world my children inhabit has grown larger and more interesting. Rather than breaking into shards, our family has simply shifted and grown new roots to support the new branches.

Pretty much the best ex-boyfriend ever.
At its most basic, the frugal breakup is a kind breakup. When two people are really trying to put each other through the ringer, it gets expensive fast. It hurts everyone. But when they remember to be caring and kind--even when there are no kids to think of--and generous in spirit with each other, even a long relationship can end without really costing a thing. Obviously, when you are legally married there will be the straightforward fee involved in a legal divorce, but it doesn't have to escalate beyond that when people remain kind to each other.

To read more on "consciously uncoupling", I recommend checking out the book The Good Divorce: How to Walk Away Financially Sound and Emotionally Happy, by Raoul Felder and Barbara Victor.

Happy children in an evolving family.

 Edit: For some reason comments to this article aren't coming through. If I haven't responded to your comment, that's why! Hopefully the issue will resolve itself soon.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Easily Make Sauerkraut Right In The Jar

I've been making my own sauerkraut for years, but for a long time I used a more complex method involving a large crock, the perfect size plate to fit inside it, a heavy jar to weigh it down, and a tea towel over it all. It's really not too hard to set up once you have the right size crock and plate, but in my small kitchen it was annoying to have this large contraption taking up space while it fermented for 3 weeks. Plus, checking the sauerkraut along the way to see if it was done was an involved process each time.

Here is the method I've been using for the past year or two, with great success. It's way easier and quicker, and when the sauerkraut is done it's already in jars, so there's no messy repacking.

This batch of spicy cortido kraut has celery, carrots, cabbage, beets, fresh oregano, and jalapeno.
I start with about 5 lbs of veggies and 3 Tb of sea salt. I usually use one big head of cabbage, plus a handfull of whatever other veggies I want to try. Things that I've found work great are carrots, celery, beets, daikon radish, kale, and onion. In smaller amounts I add stronger flavored ingredients, like hot peppers, garlic, ginger, oregano, and seaweeds. When adding dried seaweeds, soak them first to rehydrate, and reduce the salt a bit. Variety makes sauerkrauts more interesting, nutritious, and tasty!

The lovely mixture of shredded veggies
Simply chop or shred all veggies and combine with the salt. I mix with my hands to massage in the salt and bruise the veggies a bit, to help them start to break down and release their water.  I wear gloves to protect myself from the sting of hot peppers. You can save spicier additions like peppers and onions to stir in after the salt has been massaged into the other veggies, if you're not protecting yourself with gloves. 

I use the slicing blade on cabbage and greens...
... and this blade on root veggies.
After massaging in the salt, let the mixture sit for a few minutes, massage again, and you should notice a lot of liquid has been released. This water (brine) will be added to each jar along with the veggies. It's ready to jar up and start fermenting! 

After mixing with the salt, veggies will release their water. This batch has arame seaweed.
Stuff veggies by the handful into clean, wide mouth mason jars. You will probably need 3 quart jars, or 2 quarts and one pint size jar for 5 lbs of veggies. Press the veggies deeply into the jars, both to bruise the veggies further and to remove any air pockets from the kraut. It's best if the jars are filled just to the "shoulder", about 1" below the top, so that there is room for them to bubble and expand a bit. I frequently overfill them, and liquid seeps out. Which is fine, but I'd rather it stay put.
 
After pressing the veggies deeply into the jar, top off with the brine. Try to distribute the liquid equally between the jars, with the goal of covering the veggies with brine. Using a spoon or clean hand, press all the kraut as much as possible below the level of the brine. If necessary, extra brine can be mixed up to top off the jars. Simply mix salt and water (about a teaspoon of salt per cup of water) and pour over kraut. I have never needed to do this, because I find the veggies always provided enough liquid on their own.


OK, your work is done here. Screw some lids on those jars and let them ferment for anywhere between 1 and 3 weeks! Yes, that is a huge window. It's up to you to decide when they're done. I find it's perfectly good at any point along that continuum; some people like their krauts a little more fresh and crispy, and others like a more mature, softer kraut. For the first few days, fermentation will be very active, and it's best to open the jars enough to release pressure once a day.

Open the jars at least once a week to check for signs of mold (remove any you see with a clean spoon) and press any veggies back under the brine that have strayed. Taste a pinch of veggies each week. Once they're done to your satisfaction, transfer them to the fridge. They'll continue to mature in the fridge, but at a much slower rate. Kraut will last for many, many months under refrigeration. I've even kept it in my cool, dark, garage pantry for about a year and it was still perfectly good.

Sometimes the top layer of the jar will discolor from oxidation; you can discard this layer if you find it unappealing. My chickens gobble up discolored kraut with impunity. An off color does not mean it's gone bad, it's simply oxidized.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Herbal Salt Blends


This is my favorite new recipe, simply blending together dried herbs and sea salt. It's amazingly good and infinitely variable. It's also a delicious way to add more dried nettles to your diet, which are mild tasting and incredibly nutrient rich.

I got the idea from a recipe in the Mountain Rose Herbs catalog, but have made it my own. I always have different herbs on hand- and never follow a recipe to the letter if I can help it. Not having any dried rosemary the first time I made this, I was worried mine wouldn't turn out that great because I used such different flavors, but it was amazing. I'll include both the original recipe, which sounds fantastic, and my first variation, which was very ad hoc and turned out great.


This is a perfect way to use your home-dried herbs! Shown here are golden oregano, parsley, and rosemary, all from my summer garden.
Original recipe: 
2 parts rosemary leaf
1 part nettle leaf
1 part dandelion leaf
1 part lemon thyme leaf
coarse sea salt

In a coffee grinder, finely powder each herb. Mix the blended herbs together in one container, and measure the total volume. Add half that volume of salt. Return to the grinder and pulse together to blend.



What I did:
2 parts sage
2 parts nettle leaf
1 part oregano
1 part parsley
1 part thyme
coarse sea salt

Don't worry if it looks a bit coarse after the first grind. When the herbs are ground a second time, with the salt, they'll become fine powder.

It's so, so good. Use it as you would table salt, to sprinkle extra nutrients and flavor on everything you eat. As you can see from how different the above herb combinations are, you can really use whatever you have. We've also found that we can get away with a lot less salt, so rather than half the total volume being salt, we might use 1/3 or 1/4. It's really more about the herbs!

I made specific flavors that I thought people would like (parsley & thyme for my stepmom, rosemary sage for my brother) and packed them in pretty jars, to go along with Christmas presents this year.


Friday, December 6, 2013

How To Make Delicious Water Kefir


Water kefir is my new favorite thing to drink. It's so light and naturally bubbly, and can be made into any flavor with the addition of fruit juices. Plus it has the health benefits of living cultured foods. In less than a week and with minimal effort, your kefir grains will transform a small amount of juice and sugar into an amazingly tasty, versatile, and healthful beverage.

There are two stages of fermentation for your kefir, the first ferment and the second ferment. I will describe them both here. When you are given water kefir grains, they will look like this:


I scrawled a line on my jar to mark the optimal level of kefir grains. When they multiply and go over the line, it's time for me to share them with someone!

Here is how to feed and care for your kefir grains, and produce a delicious tonic in the process:

First of all, they need sugar. Simply mix sugar into warm water until it dissolves. I heat about two cups of water in a pan on the stovetop, just until it's steamy, and then stir in the sugar. There's no need to boil it. More cool water will be added, to bring the total liquid up to about a quart. I loosely measure 1/4 cup of rapidura or sucanat sugar, and stir it to dissolve. This is then poured into a large glass jar with about 1/4 c of water kefir grains. That's it.

1/4 cup Rapidura sugar, loosely measured.


Choose the least processed sugar you can find, since the kefir grains benefit from the minerals. If you only have processed sugar, add a dollop of molasses to give back some of the minerals that the kefir needs to thrive. 


This jar contains 1/4 cup sugar dissolved in about a quart of liquid, along with the kefir grains.
Once the grains & sugar water are combined, cap tightly. To be sure fruit flies can't get into it (and they would really like to) I cover the lidded jar with a cloth, rubber banded in place: 



Let this ferment, undisturbed and at room temperature, for 24-48 hours. Cooler temperatures will slow down fermentation. You don't want the kefir grains to run out of sugar or they will die, so don't let it go too long.



After two days, it's time to strain out the liquid into a bottle or jar, and add some fruit juice. Use whatever flavor you fancy; we've tried fresh apple, grape, elderberry, and orange, and they've all been really good. For the elderberry, I used a small amount of homemade elderberry syrup in place of juice, and it worked great. I tend to use about 1/4 to 1/3 for my ratio of juice to kefir liquid. 


While you can use a tightly capped mason jar for the second ferment, I prefer the spring loaded bottles shown above. They have a firm seal and are easy to use, as well as a pretty nice presentation. These two bottles of orange kefir are in their second ferment, alongside the "mother" jar of kefir doing its first ferment.
These upcycled bottles of storebought kombucha that a friend saves for me also work great for doing the second ferment. They have very tight fitting lids, which is important for building up carbonation in the water kefir.
Orange water kefir, nicely bubbly!
Once your juice and kefir blend has fermented for 2 or 3 days, place bottles in the refrigerator. They'll last a long time in the fridge, but they're ready to drink as soon as they're cold! Open with caution. Sometimes a lot of pressure can build up, particularly if they've fermented for too long or been kept in the fridge for too many weeks (where they slowly continue to build up pressure). If this happens, drink your water kefir sooner!

Do you have a favorite flavor of water kefir, or a different way to make it? I'd love to hear ideas and feedback from you!




Friday, November 29, 2013

Our Handmade Copper Tree

The final product, in all its gleaming upcycled glory:


There were a couple of years that we went completely treeless at Christmas, when my kids were quite young and wouldn't miss it. But I do like having a big tree to decorate, with beautiful presents piled underneath.



For a few years we would go out of town in early December and cut a tree from a little tree farm, and then one year we discovered buying the ones already trucked into town and sold in lots was way cheaper. Still, cutting or buying a new tree each year never sat well with me. It just seems like such a waste, in more ways than one. It's part of the uber-consumption of the holiday season that we generally do well to avoid.


We considered buying a fake tree, and talked to a lot of friends who are very happy with theirs. I liked the idea of having one tree to use every December forever, without creating more waste each year. I was not happy with the off-gassing factor of artificial trees though. Also, many fake trees are pre-lit, and the biggest problem with that appears to be that the light strands will die in big sections, as light strands do, and then you end up with a half-lit tree, and ultimately a bunch more trash in the landfill.



We borrowed a white metal yard tree from a friend one year, and used that in our living room. I kind of liked the stark simplicity of the metal, but with half the lights out it was rather haphazard looking. One day, after gazing for a moment at our semi-ugly borrowed metal tree, Nik declared that he could make a better one.



Creating the branching effect
He got to work right away. The only thing he needed to buy for it was a copper lightning rod, to use as the tree trunk. The rest of the copper came from stripped electrical wires, leftover from the rolls of wiring he had for a house project. 

You can see in the picture how he wound a thick layer of extra rubber tubing around the base of the tree so it would work in a conventional tree stand.
Stripping the wiring of its protective coating was not an easy task, but once he had that done, building the tree was fun and easy. To continue with the upcycling trend, he used strips of old bicycle tubing to lash the branches to the trunk. Then he unwound the wires to make them branch in natural patterns... And then we had our tree! Simple, mostly free materials, and what's more beautiful than gleaming copper?

The wire is plenty strong for all our ornaments. You can see in this photo how we simply wind the light strand around the trunk of the tree rather than around the perimeter as you might for a pine tree.

I think the gold tree star topper looks fabulous on the copper tree.
This will be our third year using it, and it's still as beautiful as ever!

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Make Your Own Cacao Powder

To avoid oxidation and ensuing rancidity, we grind our own fresh cacao powder, as we need it, from whole raw cacao beans. Much like coffee beans, cacao will be at peak flavor right after grinding. And like grains and other seeds, nutrition deterioration begins as soon as they are ground. 



The raw cacao beans keep much better than pre-ground powder, and store for a long time in a cool, dark place. When I want cacao for a recipe, I simply use my coffee grinder to blend up the amount I need. Any extra that I may end up with goes in a jar in the fridge for the next time I need it. 


The grind I make may not be as fine as storebought, but I would say the quality, nutrition, and freshness make up for it!
I do grind coffee in the same mill, and am never bothered by any coffee flavor in my chocolate or chocolate flavor in my coffee. They go pretty well together, and any small residue from sharing the equipment hardly matters. 

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Garlic Honey, An Effective Cold Remedy


An excellent remedy for the cold season, this simple blend of raw garlic and raw honey is quick to make and surprisingly tasty. While I love garlic, the idea of eating even one clove of raw garlic straight does not appeal to me, no matter how good for you it is. However, this simple combination makes huge amounts of raw garlic very palatable.

I first made this when I had been sick for a few days and none of my normal remedies (nettle tea, rest, neti pot, gargling with salt water, avoiding sugar) were doing the trick. I was just not getting better, until the morning I made this. I ended up eating an entire head of raw garlic that morning, and immediately felt so much better that I made and ate a second head of garlic honey that afternoon. 


My illness was gone, and I just felt good. I continue making garlic honey regularly now, even when healthy, just because I like it! Here is the recipe:


Peel and mash one head of garlic. You can mince it finely if you don't have a garlic press. Stir together with about half the volume of raw honey, until it forms a thick paste. I use about one teaspoon of honey for maybe 7 cloves of garlic, but you can use as much as equal parts garlic and honey if you are worried about the taste. Let this mixture sit for several minutes, give another quick stir, and then eat in tiny spoonfuls whenever you want, as often as you like.


This will keep safely on the counter for a couple of days, or in the fridge for longer. 


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