Frugal Living

Holiday Baking Prep

I do a lot of baking around the holidays, for a few reasons:

1. I don’t like to participate in the consumer culture surrounding Christmas.
2. I like to give people gifts they can use up and enjoy.
3. I like cooking, eating, and sharing tasty baked goods.

I do give Christmas presents to all of my family and also several close friends, and I need to plan ahead to get everything accomplished without driving myself insane. Here’s my current “do ahead” list to prepare for my holiday baking frenzy:

1. Make homemade pumpkin puree from our giant garden pumpkin to use in pies.
2. Make homemade candied lemon and orange peels. The ones I can find in the stores are heavily preserved, which I don’t like.
3. Start checking prices on butter during my regular grocery shopping trips, and stock up when the brands I like get below $2.50 per pound. These all go straight into the freezer.
4. Toast and skin hazelnuts to use in biscotti. These will get stored in the freezer.
5. Check all my spices and staples, and stock up as needed so I can avoid the stores during big holiday rushes.
6. Start thinking about how to package my baked goods this year. I tend to stick within my kraft paper/twine/homemade tags œuvre, but some type of more airtight wrapping is required to keep things fresh. I’m thinking about ordering a big roll of food-grade cellophane this year.
7. Do a few test cases – a pumpkin pie to test how the homemade puree cooks up, mini versions of my two standard biscotti recipes, maybe a new sugar cookie recipe (I seem to try a new one every year, but I just can’t find one that I really like).

I’m sure more things will be added to that list, but I’ll start working on these things a bit at a time. Hopefully, by the time the big Christmas gift baking session rolls around, I’ll be totally prepared!

Improvised Canning

I finally canned something! Years ago, I remember canning jam with my aunt and my grandmother, but I’ve always been intimidated to try it on my own. I finally worked up the nerve to can apple butter this weekend, and it worked out just fine. We had some apples left over from a recent trip with friends to Apple Hill, so I decided to try the apple butter recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. When I had questions, I referred to the USDA Canning Guide. Here are my canning utensils, ready to go:

The only things I purchased for canning were the funnel, the “jar grabber,” and the jars/lids/rings. Everything else was stuff I already had – we even improvised the canner from thrift store finds! We used a huge pot I found at Goodwill for $9, a pasta insert I found for $3, and some coiled aluminum foil to keep the pasta insert off the bottom of the pot. John easily removed the handles from the pasta insert so it would fit all the way into the pot, and we were good to go.

It worked like a charm. The pot has a tight-fitting lid, so it didn’t lose much water at all during processing. I was surprised to find that we needed to add five minutes to the processing time, since we’re more than 1,000 feet above sea level.

I used the “jar grabber” to safely remove the processed jars from the hot water. I think this is one special canning tool that really is necessary. It’s technically called a “canning jar lifter,” but I think “jar grabber” is much more accurate.

It was so exciting to hear the cans make a “pop” noise as they sealed while they were cooling. My Mom told me this was one of the best parts of the canning process, and I totally agree!

The real reward for all the hard work is the satisfaction of enjoying my homemade apple butter on toast. The bread is homemade, too. I’ve been trying to perfect a multi-grain recipe. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m still eating and enjoying my test loaves!

This experience taught me that canning is not as difficult as it seems. There are a lot of steps that were hard for me to understand until I thought about the big picture of the canning process. It’s pretty much just sterilizing, filling the jars, and processing. I get confused when I look at the 20-step canning directions, but if I think of those three main steps on their own, it all makes sense. You don’t need very much special equipment for canning fruit jams, butters, and jellies. Don’t believe the hype! Just use what works, whether it’s the “right” equipment or not. That’s pretty much my attitude about most things, actually. 🙂

A Little Auto Body Work

Add “spray paint the car” to the list of things I never thought I’d do, but have now done. The factory clear coat on my 7-year-old Honda has held up very well. Unfortunately, I was rear-ended a few years ago, and the aftermarket clear coat the body shop used is definitely worse for the wear – it’s peeled off completely in some areas.

I don’t care what my car looks like, and I definitely didn’t want to pay for these areas to be repainted. Nevertheless, I was starting to get a little worried that, without the protection from the clear coat, the paint would deteriorate and the metal would eventually be exposed, making it vulnerable to rust. I plan on keeping this car as long as possible, and rusted panels are not part of that plan. I decided that it was worth trying some DIY body work to make sure things don’t get worse. I’ve never tackled a project like this before, and I was a little embarrassed when I went to the local O’Reilly Auto Parts and asked about clear coat spray paint! I knew that there was no way I would get great results by spray-painting my car, but that wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to make sure the metal body panels were protected. If it was a total failure, I’d pretty much be back where I started – needing to get those areas repainted. I came home with Dupli-Color Protective Clear Coat Finish and some 2000-grit wet/dry sandpaper.

I used the sandpaper with water to remove as much of the chipped areas of the factor clear coat as possible, and to smooth the rough edge where the clear coat had flaked off. The sanding also helped rough up the existing paint and clear coat so the new spray-on clear coat would adhere better. The transition was quite a bit smoother when I was done sanding. On the right side of this photo you can see that the paint has deteriorated some and exposed the primer underneath.

I thoroughly rinsed everything with water to remove any sanding residue, then let the car air dry. Then I masked off the areas that I was going to spray with the clear coat. I decided to spray the entire section above the rear window, but only parts of the panel below it. Most of the clear coat on that panel was in good shape, and I didn’t want to spray the undamaged sections. I masked off these areas with about 1 to 1.5 inches of undamaged clear coating around them, so the new clear coat would totally cover the flaking edge area.

Before I started spraying, I wiped down the areas to be painted with mineral spirits to remove any residue, then with water, then let it dry again. Then I got to spraying. The Dupli-Color paint sprayed really evenly until it was nearly empty. I made sure to start spraying off to the side, then used a slow, even motion to apply thin coats. I sprayed my first coat on one of the sections too heavily and it started to slump. Fortunately, I was able to quickly wipe it off with mineral spirits and start over, but I learned my lesson – use thin coats to start!

I ended up spraying four thin coats and two moderately thick coats. I found that as the coating built up, I could apply a thicker layer without getting any slumping. I was very careful to try to keep the can moving constantly and steadily while I was spraying, so the coating would be as even as possible. I think that applying multiple thin coats to start helped create an even base. Once everything was dry, I removed the masking.

There was a clear line where I had masked off the sections on the panel below the rear window. Not too surprising. The paint can said that any transition lines could be softened by using polishing compound after letting the clear coat cure for 48 hours. I waited the recommended time, then wet-sanded again, then used the polishing compound. I finished by applying a couple of coats of carnauba wax to protect the new clear coat. Here’s the before and after of the panel above the window:

And the panel below the window:

You can still see the line from the new clear coat, but it doesn’t bother me. Even though aesthetic improvement wasn’t one of my goals for this project, I do think the “after” looks a lot better! The total cost of this project, including 2 cans of spray-on clear coat, one package of 2000-grit wet/dry sandpaper, polishing compound and carnauba wax, was $32.

This project wasn’t quick, but it was easy. The prep work was time-consuming (but not difficult), and I think it was essential to achieving good results. I also think it’s important to let everything dry thoroughly and not rush into re-sanding and polishing. All-in-all, I think this was $32 well-spent to keep my car protected so it will continue to serve me well for years to come!

DIY Rope Umbrella Stand

Ever since we’ve had our patio table, we’ve been using this DIY umbrella stand to hold our patio umbrella. I thought I would share how we made it so you could DIY it too!

Kidding! That’s the original DIY umbrella stand that John made with a leftover plant container and a sack of post concrete. He put the bottom of our umbrella pole into a 3-mil contractor’s trash bag, wrapped the excess with tape, stuck it in the center of the plant container, and filled it with cement. Once it cured, the umbrella pole and bag came out easily. This thing was cheap and very sturdy, but I wanted something nicer for our deck seating area. After considering different paint options, I finally decided to try covering the umbrella stand in rope, like an old buoy. Here’s the finished product:

I wouldn’t say that this process was exactly “quick and easy” (it took several hours over a few days and was a little fiddly), but it only cost about $35 total and I am super happy with the way it turned out! I bought 100 feet of manilla rope (two 50-foot packages), a big tube of Liquid Nails, and a can of spray paint that matched the rope. I also ended up using some cork, wood glue, and spar urethane that we already had on hand. The estimated cost of $35 is for all the materials, including the concrete and the stuff we had on hand.

I cut off the plant container with a utility knife and spray-painted the concrete to match the rope. I figured that was a good precaution to make it less noticeable if my rope-wrapping wasn’t perfect. Then I started gluing the rope in place. I decided to start at the narrowest end (the bottom of the plant container), which would become the top of the finished umbrella stand. I wiped off as much of the excess glue as I could after snapping this photo.

After gluing the top down, I weighted it with a 4×4 and let it dry so it wouldn’t uncoil (even though Liquid Nails is pretty sticky, I still had to sort of hold the rope in place while I glued it to the top). Once the glue holding the top coil of rope down was dry, I continued wrapping and gluing the rope down the stand. Once I got near the end of the first 50-foot length of rope, I taped everything in place with masking tape and let it dry. I left about the last 8 inches unglued so I could move it around when I glued the next section of rope in place.

Once the glue was dry on the first rope section, I flipped the umbrella stand over so the bottom was facing up, then I continued gluing and wrapping the rope around the rest of the stand, taped it again, and let it dry fully. I should probably mention that I did the second half of this on John’s pottery wheel, which made it waaaaaay easier, since I could rotate it while I glued, instead of having to walk around in circles!

I glued some cork to the bottom of the stand so it wouldn’t scratch our deck, then let that dry.

Once everything was dry, I flipped it over and checked my work. It looked pretty good!

Unfortunately, after I finished high-fiving John, I took a closer look and saw that some of the Liquid Nails had oozed out between the ropes and left unsightly white marks.

I tried touching it up with spray paint. I just sprayed the paint into a puddle on a scrap of cardboard, then used a foam brush to carefully dab paint over the dried Liquid Nails. Since the paint was a good match for the manilla rope, it worked great! I seriously can hardly tell where I did the touch-up painting!

After the paint was dry, John and I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to give the finished umbrella stand a good coat of spar urethane to protect it from the elements. I applied the spar urethane liberally with a brush. I didn’t photograph this step because it made absolutely no difference in how the stand looked. In fact, the only way I could tell where I had applied it was to tap with my fingers to see which areas were tacky (from the spar urethane)! Once I let the stand dry a final time, we put our new DIY rope umbrella stand in place under our patio table.

Big upgrade! I love how the natural color and texture of the manilla rope blends in with the wooden deck table and chairs, and with our Trex deck. I totally recommend this as a DIY project that is affordable, pretty easily accomplished, and looks way fancier and more expensive than it is. Now I want to make more improvements to our deck seating area! I’m thinking that a nice candle and some colorful pillows would look good. I’m also trying to decide what to do with the laminate table top, which looks okay in photos but isn’t great in real life (although John thinks it’s fine). Please let me know if you have any suggestions or other good DIY ideas!

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)

Let me just start by saying that we’ve learned our lesson, and next year we will be planting fewer cherry tomatoes and more “regular” tomatoes (we have three cherry tomato plants this year). John and I both love cherry tomatoes when they’re fresh off the vine, because they are so sweet and don’t require any prep (besides rinsing) before you can use them in salads. But they’re more difficult to preserve because they are almost impossible to efficiently peel, even using my favorite lazy method. And like I’ve said before, I’m just not ready to tackle the tomato-canning process. The only solution I’ve come up with to preserve cherry tomatoes is to make – and then freeze – cherry tomato sauce. The good news is that sauce made from cherry tomatoes is incredibly sweet and flavorful, so it’s totally worth the effort. I make a very basic sauce, because we often add extra ingredients when we use it later on, so I want this sauce to be adaptable. Here’s my basic recipe:

Cherry Tomato Sauce (to Freeze)
Makes about 5 pints, depending on how much you reduce the sauce.
1 c. olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
about 5 quarts cherry tomatoes, rinsed
2 bay leaves

1. Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. I use a lot of olive oil in my tomato sauce because I think it helps maintain the flavor of the sauce when it freezes. It’s also really tasty!
2. Add the onions and carrot and saute briefly.
3. Add the cherry tomatoes and stir occasionally until they start to pop and form a very watery sauce. Add the bay leaves and salt to taste (remember it will cook down, so go easy on the salt to start with).
4. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce seems more “saucy” than “watery,” then gradually reduce the heat as needed to keep the sauce from sputtering. Simmer for a couple of hours, until the sauce is a little thinner than you want it to be. Taste and add more salt if needed.
5. Puree the sauce in a blender, being careful not to put too much in at once. Make sure to let the steam vent out of the blender as you go.
6. Strain the sauce to remove the peels and seeds. I just pour the sauce through a plastic strainer, and use a silicone spatula to stir it around until I’m left with just peels and seeds (see photo below).
7. Pour the sauce into clean pint-sized freezer-safe jars, making sure to leave a generous 1/2-inch head space to allow for expansion when the sauce freezes. If you decide to use quart-sized jars, I recommend leaving 1 inch of head space.
8. Let cool to about room temperature (30-45 minutes), then screw on the lids, label and freeze.

If the process sounds involved, let me assure you it’s really not. The prep work is minimal, and you basically just let it do its thing for a few hours. The only part that requires any real effort is the blending and straining, and you can avoid that if you have a food mill (I don’t). Unfortunately, there’s no way around picking all those dang cherry tomatoes. Next year…

Freezing Tomatoes (The Lazy Way)

Over the holiday weekend, I was chatting with my friend J about different methods of preserving tomatoes. I knew that I was going to need to start processing some of our garden produce, and I’m never quite sure what to do with all of our tomatoes. I’ve frozen tomato sauce successfully, but we end up buying a lot of canned tomatoes during the winter. Canning tomatoes safely at home requires a very specific process that I’m just not ready to tackle. Most methods I’ve heard of for freezing tomatoes require you to blanch and peel them first. I’ve done that before, and it’s messy and time-consuming – enough so that I really, really didn’t want to do it. Still, one of my goals this season was to preserve more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our use of canned tomatoes.

I’ve mentioned before that J knows a lot about keeping foods fresh, and this weekend she shared a tip that was almost too good to be true. J said that her Mother-in-Law and Grandmother-in-Law both freeze tomatoes – without blanching and peeling them – using an incredibly simple method. They just lop the top off the tomatoes and toss them in a bag in the freezer. When you defrost the tomatoes, the peel comes right off! Naturally, I was really excited to try this method myself.

I started by picked the ripe garden tomatoes. I’ve read that you get the best results when you process fruits and veggies as soon as possible after picking.

We don’t use any funky chemicals in our garden, but this year we started to get blossom-end rot, so we sprayed a calcium solution on the plant leaves (which was totally effective, by the way). Although the foliar calcium treatment is organic, I still soaked the tomatoes in water to remove any over-spray residue. Then I just cut off the tops, along with any old bits of blossom-end rot and any cracked areas.

I put the tomatoes in plastic bags in the freezer. I pulled a couple out the next morning to see if the method really works. I put the frozen tomatoes in a bowl to defrost (you can also run them under warm water).

After the outside of the tomatoes defrosted, I tried peeling them. Just like J said, the peels slipped right off, and I was left with perfectly peeled garden tomatoes to use in place of purchased canned tomatoes!

I am so thrilled with this easy and effective method of freezing tomatoes! I feel really proud that I can easily put up more of our garden tomatoes and reduce our need to buy canned tomatoes during the winter. Now I’m starting to think that preserving produce can actually be really easy if you just find the right method…and this method is even easier than driving to the store to buy a can of tomatoes!

Making Muesli

I frequently make homemade granola using a recipe from Lorna Sass’s Complete Vegetarian Kitchen. It’s not a “clustery” granola – the oats stay separate, with a light glaze from the oil and maple syrup in the recipe. When I saw ECAB’s recent post on making homemade muesli, I knew I had to give it a try. Muesli’s a lot lighter than granola (because it doesn’t have any added sugar or fats), but also a lot easier to make. I’ve bought Kellogg’s Mueslix cereal from time to time for years, but it’s always struck me as pretty expensive, and I never really liked the corn flakes. I decided to make my own version of muesli minus the flakes – basically a raw granola.

I just used what I had on hand. Here’s my ad-hoc recipe:

2 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts
1/2 tsp cinnamon

I dumped everything into a skillet and toasted it on the stove over medium heat (stirring occasionally) until it smelled, um, toasty. I really think that helps bring out the flavors in the oats, nuts, and coconut. Once it was done, I sprinkled it over yogurt, drizzled it with maple syrup, and topped it with a few dried cranberries. It was great!

Now I’m thinking of all the other flavor combinations I can make. Rosemary-pecan-cranberry (like one of my favorite Trader Joe’s treats) or ginger-walnut. I think this is going to be a great way to use up all the random small bags of dried fruits and nuts that end up in my cupboard!

Keeping it Cool…and Cheap

I was excited when PG&E installed a SmartMeter for our house, because I really wanted to see where we were spending our energy dollars. We don’t have gas, so all of our heating and cooling is electric. I was really proud to learn that we’re using less energy than most of the similar homes in our area!

We’re not perfect by any means, but we do a pretty good job of cooling our house in the summer without spending a fortune. We’re lucky to have a swamp cooler, which we inherited from the previous owner. It’s a great way to cool the house for way less than it costs to run air conditioning. But even without a swamp cooler or whole house fan (which we don’t have), there are cheap, easy, and effective ways to keep any house cooler. Here are some of our tips:

1. Don’t add heat to your house. Clothes dryers, dishwashers, and ovens/stoves all add unnecessary heat. There are easy solutions: dry clothes on the line, don’t use the “heated dry” cycle on the dishwasher, and use the barbeque/toaster oven/microwave in lieu of the oven or stove. I also avoid using the iron or blow dryer.

2. Keep the light out. This one pains me, because I love having all the windows open and letting the sun shine in. Unfortunately, sunlight equals heat, and heat is the enemy. We keep the curtains drawn to block direct sunlight, and place shade umbrellas to block windows without curtains or shades.

3. Employ psychological warfare. Part of keeping summertime energy costs down involves adjusting your attitude. No matter how good you are at keeping excess heat and light out, when it hits 100, the house is going to get warm. Using the swamp cooler along with these other techniques, we’re able to keep the temperature in our house about 15-20 degrees cooler than outside without using air conditioning. But it still gets into the low ’80s. We keep our clothing light and loose, run fans to keep the air moving, and make sure to have plenty of cold drinks (mainly ice water, but a cold beer never hurts!). These tactics do help keep us physically cool, but they also help make it feel cooler.

Swamp Cooler. I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the importance of our swamp cooler, or evaporative cooler, in keeping our house cool without spending a fortune. They’re nicknamed “swamp” coolers because they add moisture (humidity) to the air, and they are way less effective (and way less comfortable) when it’s already humid outside. But these babies work like a charm when the humidity is low, as it almost always is in our area of Northern California in the summer. A model like ours runs about $300-400, and is mounted outside the house with an opening into the house for the fan. They require power and water. Basically, a swamp cooler is just a water pump and a fan. The water pump wets fibrous mats, and the fan pulls air through those wet mats, cooling it off (and adding humidity). Depending on the outside temperature and humidity, our swamp cooler cools the outside air 15-25 degrees before it enters the house. Aaaah.

Like I said, we’re not perfect. We both like long showers, and we both like to cook, and those two habits are energy hogs when your house is all-electric. But we’re definitely not giving those up! I am trying to get in the habit of shutting off my computer when I’m not using it, and unplugging the TV and related electronics when they aren’t in use (most of the time). Those electronics get hot, and I’m trying to fight the heat!

Lazy: Icebox Iced Tea

I pretty much stopped drinking coffee earlier this year (doesn’t agree with my tum), so I’ve turned to tea to meet my hot/cold caffeinated morning beverage needs. But – brutal honesty – I am lazy when it comes to making my own. I’m always in a rush out of the house, and it is just so easy to pop in and grab a cup of whatever to go. I can manage hot tea, but not in this weather. Now that it’s summer, I’ve fallen in love with iced tea. It’s not hard to make, and I’ve tried a few methods: hot brewed and cooled, hot over ice, and sun tea. Instant iced tea is deeply unsatisfying and not an option. Hot over ice is a total failure, but the other two work just fine if I plan in advance, which I never do (because I’m lazy). And I don’t really like putting hot liquids in the fridge – I always have to juggle stuff around so the hot stuff isn’t near milk or meat or anything like that, and it’s a pain (and a waste of electricity cooling it off).

I’ve finally hit on a method to make iced tea that I’m not too lazy for – Icebox Iced Tea.

It’s dead simple: a quart of cold tap water, two tea bags, stick it in the fridge, and let it brew overnight. I use a wide-mouth quart-sized canning jar, but any covered container would work. Apparently I’m able to overcome my laziness for the 30 seconds it takes to prepare it in advance – after all, that’s way less time than it takes to get takeout! It comes out pretty strong, which I like because I have it over ice with a generous amount of milk. Since 100 tea bags cost me less than $2, I get my fix for less than a nickel. Being lazy is always satisfying, but saving money at the same time is even more so!

Mulch is the Answer

According to my new favorite book, How to Grow Fruits and Vegetables by the Organic Method (1961 Edition), mulch is the answer to all my problems. It controls weeds, helps keep moisture in the soil, adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes, and helps control pests. In the winter, it also helps keep the soil warm, although Lord knows we don’t need that help now…it was in the high 90’s today.

The weeds have been taking over our garden. I think that some of the manure we used is to blame. After I spent a while weeding, I had things around the garden plants in the Back Forty under control.

Garden Before Mulch

I decided that hay would be the best choice for mulch because it’s cheap and readily available. Turns out, hay isn’t exactly “cheap.” Hay (alfalfa in this case) is used for fodder and runs $19/bale at our local feed store. Straw is what we wanted. Six dollars a bale and way fewer weeds and seeds to boot. I laid a nice thick layer (3-4 inches) around the base of the plants in the Back Forty, and only used about a third of a bale. I didn’t put any mulch around the crawling plants (melons and zucchini) because they were already on the ground. I didn’t mulch any of the raised beds because I figured they would act as a control of sorts.

After Mulch

After Mulch Closeup

I’m hopeful that the mulch will help with the weeds, and also help reduce our watering needs during the heat of summer. If the plants I mulched around look like they’re doing well after a few more weeks, I’ll probably go to town and mulch everything.

To reward myself after all that work in the hot sun, I enjoyed a treat from the garden. Blackberries right off the vine. I love summer.