Monday, May 7, 2018

New Adventures

One of our mutual dreams and goals back before we were married was to have a small farm where we could grow and raise nourishing food to feed the family we hoped to have one day. Now four years later we have a family, a garden, and as of this weekend, we finally have our jersey cow.

Our two year old is so excited to have a cow and a source for our very own fresh milk. He asks about the cow every day and has taken it as his responsibility to help dad milk in the evenings. After watching the routine only one time, he knew all there was to know about taking care of the milk after bringing it back into the house.

We started the cow on the pasture but after the first night when she just paced the fence line and bawled, we felt it was better for both the cow and our neighbors to put her in the barn to get her comfortable with us and her new surroundings before expecting her to stay calm out in the wide open by herself. She has been doing much better in the barn! We can't wait to get her out on the fresh spring grass though!

She is a very friendly cow who willingly follows and sticks by Aaron. She had been bottle-fed as a calf and somewhat babied by her previous owner. It's nice that we haven't had to work to get her to like people, but she's still not very comfortable with us milking her yet. She's got some stubborn mother in her that won't let all her milk down because we're not her babies! Hopefully she'll get used to the idea before too long, because we're certainly not overloaded with milk at our current yield of +/- 1 gallon a day. And I can't wait to have extra cream for butter! Now we're talking about getting another small animal so the cow isn't all alone out there. We enjoyed raising a lamb last summer, but haven't decided what else we'll get this year, or if we'll be adding to our farm for sure just yet.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Transplanting to Bigger Pots

Our tomato plants have taken off and are growing like crazy! It was high time we transplanted them into bigger pots before their roots were all intertwined in one big knot, so that's what my garden helper and I did over the weekend. 

Last year when I transplanted tomatoes, I used the little biodegradable cardboard cups. Those things can be pretty pricey, and we didn't have very good success with them, so I opted for a free pot option this year. 

We've been getting locally made butter in these little 16-oz. plastic containers. Instead of throwing them out, I saved them to use as transplant pots! Between these and some other random 16-oz. sour cream containers, I had more than enough for this years' crop. 

One of the biggest issues we had last year with the biodegradable pots were that we had a hard time controlling the moisture. The pots ended up soaking up all the water and rotting, leaving the soil inside either really wet or dry. Maybe I just didn't know how to take care of them, but one fail was enough for me to try something different.

In effort to get my watering and moisture levels better, I poked about 6 holes in the bottom of each of the containers with a nut pick. I made the holes more at the bend of the container rather than directly on the bottom so they wouldn't create a seal as they soaked up water. My idea was not just to drain excess water, but to be able to get watered from the bottom, so they could soak up just as much as they needed, and also to encourage the roots to grow deeper to find the water source. This should also eliminate any stem rot due to overwatering.

I started the seeds in these little Jiffy starter pellets (the best way to start seeds in my experience!) You can see the roots were ready for more soil! 

And this is what they looked like re-potted.

Here is what I used for transplant soil. I had told myself last year (after an unsuccessful growing season while using it) that I wouldn't be buying this stuff again, but I didn't know what else to get. Since I'd heard good things about it from other gardeners, I decided to give it another shot. And I went big and bought a cubic foot of it! It was much cheaper in bigger quantities and I figured between this year and next it'd get used. (Providing it actually did well for me this time!) 

So far I think it has been a major success. I am loving my new watering method! These plastic containers have worked so well! I'm beginning to wonder if it wasn't the cardboard pots that were my problem before, and not the soil.

My little buddy was a great help transplanting our seedlings. He has so enjoyed being a part of the gardening process! I was a little nervous letting him help with the fragile little plants at first, but we had extra and I wanted him to be able to help and learn, and he did really well! I could hand him the plants and leave him to do the rest on his own. He was so careful! 

Sadly, our peppers aren't doing so swell. They are only this tall after 5 weeks!!! Some of them just popped out of the soil a week ago. I'm kind of disappointed, since I need peppers but have never done well with them. I think I'll have to change my ways next year and either start them a month or two earlier or else put a heat lamp up. I'm tempted to go out and buy a couple plants from a greenhouse just to raise our chances of harvesting some. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Homemade Garlic Powder

I love trying new things. Especially when it involves eliminating waste or saving money!

A more recent experiment was attempting to make garlic powder. 

Last summer I bought a bunch of fresh garlic bulbs from the produce auction. We like to use garlic for all kinds of things, from making salsas, sauces, and garlic bread to get-well remedies and poultices. (It is our number one household healer for sickness!) Since it generally stores pretty well, I knew I wouldn't have to worry about trying to use up a half-peck of garlic right away. 

My goal with most of the fresh garlic was to mince it and keep it on hand in the refrigerator to use instead of garlic powder. I find the powdered form to be pretty pricey, and haven't seen it under $11/lb. Because fresh garlic is more potent, I don't have to use as much when I'm cooking. I adjusted my cooking habits to use fresh for everything except salad dressing and veggie dips. 

A few weeks ago, Aaron noticed a bunch of cloves were starting to dry out. I sorted what was left, minced the cloves that were still good and moist, and decided to make garlic powder with the rest. 

Here's how I did it. 

First, I took the skin off the garlic cloves and placed them on a sheet pan. For quicker dry time, I sliced/chopped the garlic into smaller pieces. 

I don't have a dehydrator, so I used my gas oven instead. Since it doesn't have a standing pilot light, I heated it up just enough to get it warm inside. Then I just let it set in there and I waited, checked on them, and waited some more. It took more time to completely dry out than I expected, but it was nice that I didn't have to keep an eye on it. I truly forgot about it a few times but it didn't matter because it wasn't going to spoil! I reheated the oven no more than 1-2x per day. Within a couple days, it was all dry to my satisfaction. I wanted to make sure they were dried out enough that it didn't get gummy when I went to blend it into a powder.

To blend it, I used my Magic Bullet. That thing is a workhorse! It has been used sooo much in the 6 or so years since I bought it. It's perfect for working with smaller quantities or heavy-duty use. Making salad dressing is probably the most mild thing I've ever use it for. Usually it's frozen fruit for smoothies, or other harder items like dried out garlic, which pretty much resembles rocks.

The Magic Bullet ground it up in a jiffy! We ended up with exactly 4 ounces of garlic powder. I wish I remembered how much I paid for the garlic so I could compare cost with store-bought powder. (I paid somewhere between 35-55 cents per giant bulb.) Whether making my own garlic powder is cost effective or not, these cloves were destined for the garbage, so "repurposing" them was a money-saving endeavor!

Monday, April 2, 2018

A Peek Inside My Grocery Budget

At the beginning of the year, we implemented something new...
A real-deal, honest-to-goodness grocery budget. 

We had talked about budgets numerous times, and have attempted trying to figure one more than once, but we literally didn't feel like it was right for us. We are savers and penny-pinchers as it is, and have been keeping track of where our money has gone ever since we got married. We've looked back and made mental notes and changed habits along the way. (Maybe that is a form of budget? I dunno.)

Being a money/numbers nerd, I decided I wanted the challenge of a budget to see if there were more ways I could cut my spending. Plus I like using cash, so this was a great way to make sure I had cash on hand. It has already eliminated my need to ask Aaron for his wallet! 

Looking back on last year's average monthly grocery bill, I figured $200 sounded reasonable. It was enough less than our 2017 average that I would have to be a little more conscious of where my money was going, but not a huge enough difference that it would feel stressful. I am feeding two adults and two toddlers, and serve a meal to 50 people once a month (I allot $50/mo. for the crowd meal). This budget does not include beef for our family, which we buy by the partial cow every couple years.

After giving it a try for a few months now, I am excited to report that I have successfully made it through the first quarter under budget!

I did not do a full crowd meal (only dessert), but did make several meals for large families with new babies. 

My larger bulk purchases consisted of a 2.5 liter container of olive oil and a couple pounds of onion powder. The oil will last me until September. Total cost of bulk items was $46.15.

At the end of the month, I had $4.13 left.

I made a full crowd meal and dessert, but already had about 1/3 of my ingredients covered, since I made turkey noodle soup using a turkey I had in my freezer.

Bulk purchases included vanilla beans and vodka so I could make my own vanilla. While it was a small investment up front, it will save me a LOT of money, since I only use real vanilla. To buy another quart of what I had been using previously would've cost me a whopping $80. I also bought a 50 lb. bag of wheat berries so I can continue grinding my own flour for bread and such. Total cost between the vanilla making supplies and wheat berries was roughly $46.

At the end of the month, I had $2.29 left. 

I made another full crowd meal and dessert, and my cost into that was around $39.00. I have had a blog post typed up for a couple weeks now, but never got around finishing one last money figure so I could post it for you! 

As far as bulk purchases, I had bought a 10 lb. block of cheddar for this month's crowd meal, and ended up with 7 lbs. left for personal use. My goal was to chop it up and freeze most of it so it would last us awhile, but something happened ... and it got eaten before it made it into the freezer. Instead of mourning the loss of 7 lbs. of cheese, I was glad for the extra treat and the delight I saw on my husband's face every time he grabbed the block for a quick snack or sandwich. He loves cheese, and it made me happy to see him happy. Not to mention the kids excitement over a slice for them, too! And my baby learned to say the word "cheese" over all this. Cost into her education... I mean, the 7 lbs. cheddar, was $20.23.

I had quite a bit left over when I reached the end of the month, which allowed me to buy several pounds of butter at $2/lb. I happened upon the sale (and needed more butter anyway), so it was nice to have the money in my wallet so I could take advantage of it! Stocking up on butter cost me $12. 

Rather excited about the numbers this time! We had $23.62 left at the end of the month!


Interesting fact: I made a meal plan for January and February, but did not put one together in March. I'm curious if this had anything to do with how much we had left over at the end of the month? I find if I don't have a new selection of groceries I'm forced to get creative with what I do have. 

Other random interesting fact: We had beans with rice no more than once per month, and each time they included more expensive ingredients to dress them up ... like meat, cheese, and sour cream. By the way, I think I've created the most delicious form of beans and rice. Problem is, I hardly measure things so I'm not really sure how to share the recipe with you. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

First Day of Spring

My seeds have been started!

First thing this morning (after breakfast, of course), Adam and I went to work in the dirt and officially started our 2018 gardening season. I thoroughly enjoyed having a little helper working alongside of me. He was so excited to be able to help and happily watered the starting pellets and watched them grow. He is so detailed and careful for a two year old, and took his job seriously when I let him plant the pepper seeds.

I had a hard time figuring out how many of each item to plant, since I'm hoping to sell some produce on top of stocking up and feeding my own family, so I just threw some seeds in the dirt and we'll see how we do! 

I'm going to try three different tomato varieties: Roma (since they bring a high dollar at the produce auction and are a specialty item), Beefsteak (because who doesn't want a giant tomato or BLT sandwich), and Amish Paste (because this is my tried-and-true paste tomato. It has never failed me in all my gardening years, even while I've attempted and failed growing a number of other varieties.)

For peppers, I'm using seeds I had left from previous years. Besides bell peppers, I used up the rest of my jalapeno seeds. I'm hoping to sell those. There weren't any at the produce auction last year, and there are always gobs of men who attend, so I figured I'd take the chance and watch the market!

In addition to the tomatoes and peppers, I decided to try some flowers, too. I've never had success with them, but I have too many packets of seeds sitting around unused. Ideally I should have started them weeks ago, so I guess you can call them an experiment, too. (But then again, what do I do that isn't an experiment?) The varieties I planted are Marigolds and Evening Primrose. 

Evening Primrose are known as an enthusiastically spreading plant. I'm going to see what it does here in Mid-Northern Michigan where it gets below -10*F in the winter. I had the seeds so I thought I'd give it a shot. Another experiment I guess.... but this one is not going in my produce garden! 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Deep Freezer - Before and After Organizing

....Aaand here are the results of my freezer cleaning!

A couple weeks ago, I posted my brim-full refrigerator before picture, and a nice, sparkly after picture, along with a teaser of my deep freezer before picture, which revealed a freezer so full it's about busting at the seams. As promised, I have returned with an after picture and a list of what's really stored inside!

The main reason the freezer was so full is because I had just received a cows worth of beef bones, which I turned into some delicious bone broth. Once I was able to clear those out, I finally had room to rearrange and take inventory of what was inside.

I had a pretty good idea of what I had before I started, since the freezer came with these nice handy, dandy dividers where I can section off categories like ground beef, steaks, roasts, etc. These are super helpful because we buy our beef in bulk and can fill up an entire section with one variety of cut rather than everything being strewn about and it being a treasure hunt whenever I manage to dig below whatever is on the surface. 

Because of this, I did not dig through the steak section to see exactly how many of each cut I had (round, sirloin, etc.). Knowing I had an almost-full section of steak was good enough for me to know we weren't going to run out anytime soon!


Here it is! The after shot. Still full, but much neater.

And here is the inventory. I included the list of my upstairs refrigerator/freezer inventory, since I am frequently transferring things between the two.

Since making this list, I have used up the whole turkey, a roast, some steak, a bag of zucchini, the beets, a bag of hotdogs, and several pounds of butter. It has been nice having this list handy so I can plan my meals accordingly without having to open my freezer, although I do sometimes get better inspiration when I see the actual food. :) 

Want to know what's cooking? I have a beef roast in the crock pot at this very moment! Mmm.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Cooking for a Crowd: Episode 14 - Rice Krispie Treats

We've had quite the weekend driving all over the state! Instead of going out on Valentine's Day, we decided to skip the rush and the late mid-week night by having our date night on Saturday instead. It was our second ever kid-free date as parents. I thought it was special, and enjoyed the rare chance of having undivided husband time with no responsibilities or interruptions. Our kids are super fun, but it is like pushing the restart button on life and sanity when mom can get out for a minute to breathe.

Because of spending many hours on the road - and all day doing it, I had limited time to create a dessert for the next day's meal. Thankfully I was prepared and had a few things in my pantry that I could pull together.

On my last trip to the "big town", I had a coupon that was good for $1 off any boxed cereal purchase. Boxed cereal is on my "I don't usually buy" list. Maybe 1x/year for a special dessert, like Christmas Chex.

One [of a few] big reasons we don't buy boxed cereal is because it's not worth the money! I personally don't find cereal very filling, and can eat a half a box in one sitting. At an average of $3-4 a box, this is really pricey. Instead, I make my own cereal (either granola or grape-nuts) for the day we need a quick breakfast or snack. 

But back to that coupon. At $1 off, it wasn't worth my time trying to use it unless I was able to get a really good deal. Honey-nut cheerios were on sale, and the cheapest cereal per box, but it's not something we normally eat, and it's not very versatile, so I decided it wasn't a good buy even though the price was decent. The next best buy was Rice Krispie cereal, on sale for $2.50 for an extra large (maybe 18 oz.?) box. This was even cheaper than their standard sized box! With my coupon, this brought the price down to $1.50, which I thought sounded good to me since I could use them in a variety of recipes like Rice Krispie treats or granola bars. I did have crowd dessert in mind when I put them in my cart, and ended up getting a couple bags of marshmallows that day as well so I would have them on hand just in case.  

So, on that day that I was gone until 8pm, Rice Krispie treats it was. My two year old and I had a grand time in the kitchen together that evening. We got to share of bowl full of the leftover Snap, Crackle and Pop cereal while we were melting the marshmallows for the treats. This was the first time I'd ever attempted making Rice Krispie Treats, and I had no idea previously that it was basically just marshmallows and cereal! As a junk-food illiterate chef, I guess I learned something new that probably everybody else knows.

[By the way, another thing I learned this year was that Cool Whip is found in the frozen food section! I've never bought Cool Whip before, and have no plan to ever ever, since it's nasty and I don't even want to eat it, but I had NO idea it was a frozen item and was surprised when I walked through the freezer aisles to see it. This might confirm how unknowledgeable I am in the junk/processed foods department. I really don't mind being uneducated in this area.]

I made 3 recipes of Rice Krispie Treats, which according to the box was enough for three 9x13 pans full. Each recipe took 6 cups of cereal and one 12 oz. bag of marshmallows. Since I don't have three 9x13" baking pans, I used a half sheet pan and a smaller 7x11 pan. My cost into the cereal was $1.50, and the marshmallows were $3.38, so my total dessert cost was $4.88. It made about 52 squares (if I'm remembering correctly), and I was aiming to serve 40 people. Cost per square was 9 cents. 

There weren't as many in attendance as expected, so less than 40 mouths to feed, but people did some snacking after the meal was finished, and we had about 12 pieces leftover.