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Every day is Earth Day. April 22, 2014

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“The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

—Chief Seattle

Happy Earth Day to you from all of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac!

Bringing home the bacon. April 21, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I just read an article on 24/7 Wall St on “The 10 Fastest Rising Food Prices.” In case you’d like to cut these skyrocketing items off your grocery list (or stock up while they’re still affordable), I thought I’d share them with you. This list applies to the first four years of this decade, so there’s some consistency to the price increases. And this only applies to price increases in the U.S., even though some of the items on the list aren’t grown here.

A final caveat before we get to that list: Like me, you might think it would contain traditional luxury foods like lobster, caviar and truffles. Or increasingly endangered species like sharks and tuna. Or trendy foods espoused by precious Gwyneth Paltrow and her ilk. Or the latest miracle weight-loss berries “as seen on Dr. Oz.” But it turns out that none of this is true. All the foods and beverages on the list are those consumed regularly by American households, guaranteeing that we’re all going to take a hit to our bank balance. Now let’s see what they are:

Bacon, ground beef, oranges, coffee, peanut butter, margarine, wine, turkey, chicken, and grapefruit. The price of bacon has risen 53% in just four years. Yowie kazowie! And of course, just when bacon-with-everything soared in popularity with both chefs and the general public. I like to begin my day with a refreshing glass of half unsweetened grapefruit juice and half mandarin orange sparkling water, and end it with a glass of wine, so I’m taking a double hit from this list. Ouch!

Apparently, supply and demand isn’t to blame in most of these cases. Instead, Mother Nature has stepped in with years of crippling drought in California’s agricultural regions and in the Southwest, cattle country. Coffee plantations in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee exporter, have also been hit by drought, as have peanut growers in Georgia and other parts of the South.

Disease has attacked Florida’s citrus trees, keeping fruit from maturing and ripening. It has also decimated pig populations with Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (eeewww, think about that next time you tuck into some bacon!). There are also crops like limes and avocados that didn’t make the list, but owe their skyrocketing prices to the drug wars in the regions of Mexico where they’re grown.

Connections aren’t always clear: Margarine prices have gone up, for example, because of droughts in corn- and soybean-producing states which provide the vegetable oil from which margarine is made. These states grow the nation’s sunflower supply as well. Which means that I can expect my parrot’s sunflower, cracked corn, and peanut feed mix to go up in price, as well as the bags of black oil sunflower seed I feed my outdoor birds. I can expect my taco shells and Our Friend Ben’s beloved tortilla chips, made of course from corn, to go up. Think about all the things you eat that could be affected by these shortfalls.

Then think about stocking up on the things that keep well (like peanut butter, wine and coffee) and what you could substitute for the things that don’t. And keep an eye out for coupons and sales!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Shortcut: Lemon juice. April 6, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. So many recipes call for fresh-squeezed lemon juice. But fresh lemons don’t keep well, and unless you squeeze them through a sieve, the chances of getting seeds and pulp in your dish are about 99-1. If you do squeeze them through a sieve, it’s yet another utensil to wash, an added pain if you hand-wash your dishes as we do.

But there’s a reason recipes call for fresh-squeezed, which anyone who’s used prepared lemon juice from one of those lemon-shaped bottles can attest: That doesn’t taste like lemon juice! It tastes like some acid/chemical abomination. Eeeeewwww!!! Who’d want to put that in their food?!

Searching for a bottled lemon juice that tasted like lemon juice rather than a chemistry experiment, one that would keep effortlessly in the fridge and be ready whenever you needed it, for margaritas or guacamole or to brighten a salad dressing or some asparagus or broccoli or a soup or pasta or rice dish, finally led me to Nellie and Joe’s Famous Key West Lemon Juice. I’ve been using their Key lime juice for years, as Key limes are never available in my area except in the highest-end grocery stores (all far from our rural home), and then only for a very short season. I’ve found that Nellie and Joe’s Key lime juice, while certainly not as good as fresh-squeezed Key limes, is way better than any other bottled lime juice and is ready for use at any time, in any season.

When I first saw that they were bottling lemon juice as well, I confess that I was skeptical. After all, Key limes are a specific type of lime; there’s no such thing as a “Key lemon.” Was the company just slapping an elite name on the usual chemical cocktail? Turns out, the answer is no, and the secret of this lemon juice’s delicious flavor is its comparative lack of acidity, its mildness, which lets the lemon flavor shine through without clutching your throat in a death grip. (This is why so many recipes call for lemon zest, the top, colored layer of lemon peel, which imparts lemon flavor to a dish without the bitterness of the white pith underneath.)

Both the Key lime and “Key lemon” juices are found bottled in the fruit juice aisles of our local groceries. See if your local grocery carries them, too, and if it does, check them out and see what you think! How wonderful to have such essential ingredients at hand whenever you need them, and to know that you can count on them for great taste.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Starlings: Love them or hate them? March 25, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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“Listen to that wonderful birdsong!” our friend Rob announced while visiting us the other day. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were appalled: Rob was referring to the unmusical but deafening cacophany of the starlings that had taken up temporary residence in our tree canopy. These nuisance birds appear here in great numbers every spring, beating out all other birds at feeders and pooping all over the place. OFB suggested that Rob check out his car, which in fact was now liberally streaked with starling poop. “Yes, aren’t they just wonderful?”

Starlings are perhaps the best-known example of non-native species deliberately introduced to America by well-meaning idiots who didn’t understand what the consequences of their actions would ultimately be. (Multiflora rose and kudzu are others.)

In the case of starlings, some jackass was determined to introduce every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare into Central Park. In 1890, he released 60 pairs of starlings, and the rest is history: Their number is now estimated at 150 million. Ditto for the house sparrow, introduced also in New York in 1852, which has spread across the continent and displaced native sparrows and other birds.

These are deliberate introductions that have wreaked havoc with our ecology, not escapes like the Quaker parrot (aka monk parakeet) colony in Chicago or accidental introductions like the Japanese beetle and the brown marmorated stinkbug or, say, the Norway rat. Mercifully, most people now know better than to try to introduce non-agricultural species to the great outdoors, and there are regulations in place to try to prevent invasive species like the Asian carp, now in the Great Lakes, and Burmese pythons, now in the Everglades, from entering the country.

The house sparrow is a very handsome bird, to our eyes the most attractive sparrow. The starling, in its spring plumage, is spangled with a constellation of white stars on its dark feathers. The same could be said of multiflora rose with its mounds of white flowers or kudzu, which is prized in its native Japan for its nourishing and medicinal properties. It’s not their fault they’re here, it’s ours. Let’s hope we’ve finally learned our lesson. All that glitters is not gold.

The cheapest form of hope. March 24, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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“He that can have patience, can have what he will.”

—Benjamin Franklin

Our friend Ben isn’t sure that I agree with our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, on this one. The ugly old guy is unlikely to get the beautiful young girl unless he’s rich and powerful and she’s shallow and greedy, however patient he is. The person who can barely add 2+2 without a calculator is unlikely to become the next Einstein, however patient he is. A techno-idiot like me is unlikely to become the next Elon Musk or Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg, however patient I am. Patience will not make an aspiring writer into a bestselling novelist or even get them published (not even talent can do that, it’s all about platform, but I digress).

Perhaps Dr. Franklin would have hit closer to the mark by saying “The person who truly knows himself can have what he will.” I know a 90-year-old widower who wanted to go out with a bang. He bought a Camaro, started throwing his money around, doubtless stocked up on Viagra, and let it be known that he had $2 million in assets. Then he went after a much younger woman in financial distress who liked to wear vulgar clothes that showed every inch of cleavage and was, in complete opposition to him, totally uneducated. He’s been happily married and getting exactly what he wants ever since. He knew himself, much to the surprise and distress of his family, who only thought they knew who he was.

The person who truly knows him- or herself has something the rest of us lack, which is focus, as well as patience. The person who lusts after a scientific breakthrough like that 90-year-old lusted after a young, hot wife will spend a lifetime looking, and will not feel that one second has been wasted. Instead, they will feel a continuous rush of hope. Every day, when they get up, they might find the Higgs boson or the gravitational waves that followed the Big Bang and established our universe and so many others, or a cure for cancer. What a great motivation to get out of bed and get going!

Our friend Ben is not big on getting out of bed, especially in the ongoing cold and dark. (Curse you, Daylight Saving Time.) But one thing helps, and that’s lottery tickets. Every day, I have one lottery ticket, and it could buy me and my family and friends financial freedom for the rest of our lives. I always buy the ticket for the biggest payoff of the day, and I always buy just one, which means I spend $11 a week on lottery tickets. Many of my friends ridicule me for this, since to their minds it’s a total waste of money.

But for me, it’s priceless, since what I’m buying is hope. Sure, I could spend $11 a week on soda or convenience-store hotdogs or candy or gum or some other trash. (I’m not sure if you can even buy a pack of cigarettes for $11.) I could spend it going to a movie if I didn’t buy anything additional from the concession stand. I could spend it on a drink at a restaurant. And then it would be gone.

To my mind, waking up each day with the possibility of financial freedom before me, for just $11 a week, is the cheapest form of hope. As Ben Franklin says, I’m happy to be patient, for each day offers the same promise as the last. It’s hope I’m paying for, not a financial windfall. It would of course be fantastic to win. If I won enough to support myself and Silence Dogood and those we love, that would be a dream come true. To win more than that and be able to support or found causes we believe in would be a lifetime goal achieved. But even if we never win more than $2 or $5 or $11, it’s still a great reason to get up in the morning, because every morning brings a new opportunity for all the world to open.

Signs of spring. March 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Finally! Spring is here, though it’s hard to believe here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We still have patches of snow on the ground. Ugh!

However, spring is making its presence felt. Snow geese and Canada geese are migrating overhead, filling the air with their distinctive calls. Our trees are full of squawking starlings (alas). We’ve yet to see the first robin, but it can’t be long now.

And, an annual delight, the first of our spring bulbs—the winter aconites and snowdrops—are in bloom. Winter aconites have small, starry, glossy buttercup-yellow blooms born on glossy green feathery foliage just a few inches tall. They’re bulbs in the genus Eranthis, not to be confused with the perennial aconites (genus Aconitum) with tall spires of purple flowers that look like upside-down foxgloves, giving them the name monkshood. These perennials are deadly poisonous, also giving them the name wolfsbane and many another referring to their poisonous attributes. But they’re still great perennials for the late-summer garden; just don’t feed them to your wolves!

Anyway, getting back to the cheerful little winter aconites, they couldn’t look less like the perennials and aren’t even related to them. How they acquired the same name is one of those botanical mysteries our friend Ben will have to look into. But I’d recommend them to anyone; the joyful clumps of yellow flowers slowly grow bigger every year, and seeds will give you new clumps nearby.

Best of all, they bloom at exactly the same time as snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), another small bulb with strappy leaves and downturned white flowers. These bulbs also spread, and grown with winter aconites, they create an Easter patchwork of yellow and white, cheering winter-worn eyes before the grass turns green or even the hellebores bloom.

They also require absolutely zero maintenance from you after you plant them. We started with a shovelful of snowdrops from a colleague that just happened to include a couple of winter aconite bulbs. We planted them in our shrub border, and over the years they’ve grown into the cheerful display that reminds us that spring really has arrived and many more glorious blooms are yet to come.

Streamlining Crock-Pot mac’n’cheese. March 21, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. My Crock-Pot (aka slow cooker) mac’n’cheese is simply the best. Based on a recipe from my friend Delilah, it’s incredibly rich, succulent and creamy, but the top is golden and crispy. Unfortunately, it’s also a mess.

First, you cook pasta until al dente in a big, heavy pot. That’s one pot to wash. You melt butter. Two containers. You beat eggs. Three containers to wash. Finally, you add all this, along with evaporated milk and tons of shredded cheese, to your Crock-Pot and stir to combine. I don’t know about yours, but my Crock-Pot is pretty narrow with high sides, so vigorous stirring to make sure it all gets mixed well usually results in some of the contents flying out of the Crock-Pot and onto its rim, sides, the counter, and/or me and the floor. Yuck!

We don’t have a dishwasher here at Hawk’s Haven, which means that all of these containers have to be hand-washed by me or our friend Ben. There just had to be a better way, and it finally occurred to me while making the iconic mac’n’cheese to take to some friends for supper last night. Why not mix everything up in the wide, heavy Dutch oven I used to cook the pasta, then just pour it into the Crock-Pot’s ceramic cooking container? D’oh! It worked like a charm, no fuss, no muss, and just two dishes to clean: the Dutch oven and the Crock-Pot insert.

By the way, our friends chose to serve the mac’n’cheese as the main dish with a side of broccoli and a hearty salad. Good choice! But if you’d rather offset the richness of the mac’n’cheese with something more substantial, we recommend a smaller portion served with Bush’s Grillin’ Beans (we like the bourbon variety) and homemade coleslaw.

We make our basic slaw with shredded green cabbage, shredded red cabbage, shredded carrots, pepitas (roasted, salted pumpkinseeds, for crunch), cumin seeds, cracked fennel seeds, crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, and blue cheese or Dijon mustard ranch dressing (just enough to moisten the slaw, not drench it). You could add any number of other ingredients, such as golden raisins and/or diced dried apricots, if you’d like a sweeter slaw. And I hope it goes without saying, salt (we like RealSalt) and fresh-cracked pepper to taste.

Getting back to the stripped-down mac’n’cheese recipe, here you go:

Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese

1-pound (16-ounce) box of pasta, such as elbow macaroni or penne

2 cans unsweetened evaporated milk

2 large eggs

1/3 to 1/2 stick butter

2 packages shredded sharp or extra-sharp white Cheddar cheese (4 cups)

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Paprika

salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta in a heavy pot until al dente; drain, but leave in pot. Return to heat, add butter, stirring until melted. Add evaporated milk and 3 cups of Cheddar, reserving the rest. Crack two eggs into the pot. Stir very well to blend all ingredients. Add ample salt and pepper, according to your taste. (You can substitute one of our favorite flavored salts, Trocomare, available from health food stores and larger supermarkets, for salt if you wish).

Pour the pasta into the Crock-Pot/slow cooker container. Smooth it out and top with the remaining cup of Cheddar, the Parmesan, and a generous sprinkling of Paprika. Cover the insert and turn the Crock-Pot on low. Cook on low for 4 hours, until the mac’n’cheese is set and the top is bubbly. Yum!!!! Enjoy.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Help your laptop keep its cool. March 19, 2014

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If you use a laptop, you’re probably well aware of how hot it gets sitting on a desk or table. The dreaded sound of the fan switching on always makes our friend Ben think an implosion is imminent. But fortunately, there’s a cheap, simple way to keep your laptop cool.

Silence Dogood’s friend Delilah, who’s an absolute genius at improvising, clued her in to this easy trick: Just go to a cookware store and buy a cooling rack. Silence explained that cookware racks are wire racks with feet that raise them up about an inch so air can circulate underneath. They’re used to cool pies, cookies, and the like, because that air flowing beneath as well as around and over the baked goods helps them cool down much more quickly than setting a pan or tray of cookies on the kitchen counter. Delilah found that it worked perfectly to keep her laptop cool, too.

So did we. Now I almost never hear the laptop’s fan activating, and if I touch the front of its top surface, even after a long day of abuse—I mean, use—it’s cool to just warm, as opposed to hot. Problem solved!

Silence and I have been using our cooling racks for years, so I can’t tell you where we got them or what they cost, but I’ll bet they were less than $10 and you can certainly find them on Amazon, and possibly even at your local supermarket. And what a difference it makes! Try it, laptop users, you will definitely like it. Thank you, Delilah, for another great idea.

Don’t kill your dog. March 16, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets.
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Our friend Ben read an article on the Vetstreet website this morning about 26 things that could poison your dog. (Or cat, though given that Silence Dogood and I have had plenty of both, we find that it’s dogs who are most likely to eat anything they can manage to get hold of, from appetizers left unattended at a party to the contents of the cats’ litterbox.) The list included the usual suspects, like chocolate and antifreeze, but it also had a few shockers.

While it’s fairly well known that raisins and grapes and all members of the onion family (including garlic) are toxic to dogs—think kidney and liver failure—the article presented more in-depth information about the usual suspects: That dark chocolate was more toxic than milk or white chocolate, but that even cocoa-bean mulch could be toxic if a dog ate enough of it, and the good news that antifreeze manufacturers had volunteered to add bittering agents to their products to keep them from tasting so seductively sweet. (A single tablespoon of antifreeze can kill a dog, a teaspoon can kill a cat; please get your garage to top up your antifreeze rather than doing it at home.)

Obviously, toxic chemicals in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides can harm or kill your pets. It’s so telling that vets insist that you keep your pets away from chemically-treated lawns until they’ve dried or the chemicals have been washed into the soil. What are we doing to ourselves, our children, by dumping these toxins on our land and therefore into our water?!!

Houseplants tend to present more of a threat to cats. With Easter on the horizon, please bear in mind that true lilies (including Easter or Madonna lilies) and lilies-of-the-valley are extremely toxic, especially the leaves, which are what cats are most likely to chew on.

Soft bones, like fish and chicken bones, pose a dreadful risk to both cats and dogs, as they can splinter and puncture the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. An unwatched plate of irresistible chicken wings or fried chicken could spell doom for your dog, and plates of fish bones set on the counter for a few minutes before the dishes are cleaned off could mean a late-night emergency-room visit with your cat.

But the most startling items in the article were things I’d never considered: coins and pills. Zinc is extremely toxic to dogs and cats, and since it’s a major component of our contemporary coinage, including so-called “copper” pennies, this is a serious issue. If a dog eats a penny it finds on the floor, it could die.

This was news to our friend Ben, but it didn’t come close to the revelation that the cause of most pet toxicity was people leaving out medications or dropping pills on the floor and not finding them, so that their pets wolfed them down and then died as a result of their owners’ carelessness. The meds can be over-the-counter, such as ibruprofen. They can be prescription meds like pills to lower blood pressure or prevent strokes. Even seemingly harmless stuff like Xylitol in gum, sugar-free candy, and toothpaste can kill your pets.

The vets said that you should never take pills in a place, like the kitchen or bedroom, where dropped pills could be eaten by a dog. They say to keep and take them in the bathroom, and keep them locked away, as you would to protect your children. Good advice for all of us.

Don’t hit this iceberg. March 13, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I read a story on Yahoo news begging people to stop hating iceberg lettuce. I couldn’t agree more. As a health-conscious, salad-loving foodie, I adore Romaine, arugula, watercress, radicchio, endive, escarole, kale, and all the other salad greens that pack more vitamins and minerals in every leaf. But I also love iceberg lettuce and Boston, Bibb and the other butter lettuces with their unrivalled crunch or luscious, buttery texture. Right, they don’t pack the nutrients of the super-greens. But they’re still good for you.

Iceberg in particular has acquired a bad reputation because it has little nutritive value and little taste. Both these claims are true. But what iceberg does have is loads of water, fiber and crunch, and, like most greens, virtually no calories. To my mind, that puts it on the plus side in terms of a dietary addition. Filling, hydrating, no calories? Count me in. I’d rather eat an iceberg salad for lunch or before supper than gag down bazillion glasses of water any day.

Popular culture has come on board with this in the form of the wedge salad, an old, resurrected favorite that features a wedge of iceberg, typically topped with blue cheese dressing and crispy bacon, and served as a fabulous appetizer in steakhouses. Diners just can’t get enough of the crunchy, creamy, crispy treat. As a vegetarian, I make my own as an occasional hi-cal treat for our friend Ben and myself, with wedges of iceberg topped with chopped tomatoes, diced sweet onion, crumbled blue or gorgonzola cheese, and olive oil-based blue cheese dressing. Yum!!! Talk about the perfect salad to go with pizza or a tomato sauce-based pasta dish. Or, say, a lunch all by itself.

But wedge salads aren’t the only thing iceberg lettuce is good for. A nice fat slice of iceberg adds that perfect crunch to a BLT or CLT (cheese, lettuce and tomato) sandwich. A few iceberg leaves also add heft and crunch to a burger, cheeseburger, or veggie burger. And shredded iceberg, available in the produce section of most grocery stores, is the perfect accompaniment to homemade tacos or ingredient in homemade burritos or taco-inspired dips.

We absolutely love making homemade tacos with refried beans and our choice of toppings, including piles of shredded iceberg, shredded cheese, sliced black olives, sliced jalapeno peppers, diced red, yellow or orange bell peppers, sliced green onions (scallions), diced sweet onions, chopped tomatoes, our choice of red or green hot sauce (or both, we both love chipotle and I’m a big fan of tomatillo), and sour cream. Iceberg may not add to the flavor but it sure does add to the crunch, and since its calorie count is close to zero, piling it on can help counter the cheese and sour cream.

This works when you’re loading up a hoagie at Subway or Jimmy John’s or wherever, too. Ask for lots of shredded iceberg lettuce to balance out the calorie load and up the crunch factor.

And if, like me, you hate the soft, revolting texture of the ever-popular “spring mix” and baby spinach, but appreciate the colors and nutrients, consider adding shredded iceberg to the mix to bulk it up and add actual crunch. Yes, you can add nuts and pepitas and sunflower seeds and the like, and you should, they’re giving you omega-3s. But iceberg contributes a texture hit that is desperately needed. Romaine does this too, which I suspect makes Caesar salads so popular: you have crunch, creaminess, and sliced hard-boiled eggs, plus salt and pepper. No soft, decaying spring mix here!

I don’t have a clue why this lettuce variety was called iceberg. It hardly seems like an attractive name. But its sturdy, crunchy texture, its ability to stand up to storage conditions, and its lack of flavor—seemingly a drawback, but actually an asset where crunchy texture is called for in a dish without additional flavor—should make iceberg a respected ingredient on all our grocery lists.

Bring on those wedge salads!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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