Archive for July 29th, 2008

You Need a System: Managing Everything

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Ok, you’ve canned your heart out.  You’ve dried everything that can be dried.  You got the oatmeal, the spelt, the anasazi beans, the nutritional yeast, and put it in buckets.  You vacuum packed.  You built shelves.  You made sauerkraut, kimchi, chutney, you name it.  You built a root cellar.  You did it all.  Now you are all done, right?  Nothing left to do but sit around and wait for dinner to get made (assuming, of course that magic fairies, a housemate or loving partner will take care of this, since you’ve been working hard.)

 Sorry, there’s one more thing  - I’ve mentioned a bunch of times that food storage is pretty interactive.  You see most of these foods aren’t very far from being alive - they respirate a bit, take in the sun, leak a few vitamins into the air here and there.  So you have to check on them regularly. 

I can just see the eye rolls - she SAID that already.  Yes, I know, I have to go in there and look at it once in a while. FINE.  But I’m done, right?

I know, I know, I’m annoying.  But it isn’t just looking.  You see, you need a system to allocate everything.  Think about it - if you eat strawberry jam every day (my kids’ preference) for six months, you will have six months with no strawberry jam.  If you froze 16 servings of broccoli, you don’t want them gone by October.

And for the things you don’t make yourself, well, there’s shopping to do.  If you want to keep a six month supply of canned pineapple around, you have to go shopping when the stash drops down.  How do you know what you need, when?  Or how often you actually have to go into the pantry and count the boxes of pasta?

Now there are probably readers out there who have nifty spreadsheets and designed programs.  I am not one of them, but I welcome suggestions for software from anyone who does.   Me, I’ve got a notebook.

In my notebook, I have my actual reserves - X jars of canned vegetables, X jars of dehydrated vegetables, X lbs of whole wheat, etc…  and my desired reserves - desired is what I’m shooting for.  I keep a list there of ‘things to add next’ - although it is flexible - if Agway is having a sale on our brand of dog food, I’ll buy a couple of extra bags if I happen to be there, even if it isn’t on the list yet. 

Every fall, I go through and count everything, which is a PITA, and I hate it, but it is useful.  I make a little list to hang up in the storage closet of how many of each item (pickled beets, dried apples, etc…) by the jar, bucket, etc…., and I try really hard (and fail miserably every once in a while) to take .002 seconds and put a check mark next to each item.  Then, once in a while, I count the checks.  Ok, we’ve used four jars of dried greens and have 13 left.  Got it. 

For stuff we have a limited amount of, I make a chart listing the months across the top divided by the number of items I have - so if I have 20 quarts of honey-lemon carrots, and I want to eat them from December to June, when the new carrot thinnings show up that means 3 quarts each month, plus a couple with four.  When the carrots are done for the month, we don’t have them again until next time.

For things I have to buy, when only X amount is left (by counting the checks, or when I take the last one off for things we store only small amounts of), it goes on the shopping list. 

There are a few items that are a bit hard to allocate wisely - things, for example we all like a little too much.  These I sometimes hide - it is such a treat to pull out one last jar of blueberry pancake sauce or salsa after everyone thought it was gone for good.  Of course, this only works if the Chatelaine can be trusted - I can’t always be. ;-) .  But, of course, being chatelaine means that if something disappears it can be attributed to “spoilage.”

I do inventory in the spring again - I see what we ate, what we used, what we wish we’d had more of and when we ran out.  Ok…double the apricot sauce, but we had more green beans than we needed and we need 10 more quarts of pickles….  I’ve also learned to add 5-10% for the growth of four boys - that is, every year they are going to eat more, so why not plan for it.  This also gives me something important - a real sense of what a winter’s worth of food looks like for us. I try to keep track of what we buy that doesn’t count as storage as well, because it gives me a sense of what our totals are.

 Does this sound too overwhelming?  Well, when you are first starting food storage, it is easy to simply focus on a few foods - a dozen or so things that provide the basis for a monotonous but tolerable diet - beans, rice, vitamins, dried greens, canned pumpkin, rose hip tea, rolled oats, salt, spices, honey and tuna, for example, would cover most of the bases.  So you can concentrate on those, if you like.

I know, I know, you thought you were done, and here I’ve got another project.  But once you’ve done this, you really do get to take a nap, put your feet up and wait for the fairies to make dinner.


Preserving Food When You Have No Money

Sharon July 29th, 2008

Several people have expressed frustration recently that there are so many things to buy when you are preserving food.  They are experiencing what many of us probably will experience sooner or later - no money.  So while some people are using what they have while they have it to get good equipment, others are already priced out of these options, and it is hard for them.

So let’s go over the lowest cost ways to store food, and the best strategies for getting ahold of equipment cheaply.

- Ok, the cheapest technique is definitely root cellaring. That will be the subject of Thursday’s posts, so I won’t be emphasizing it here, but the cooler you keep your house (a characteristic of low income folks) the more you can keep things. 

First, squash and pumpkins like cool house temperatures, and garlic and onions do pretty well at those temps too.  Most other storable crops, including roots and apples require colder temps - but if you have natural cold and can close off a room, throw a cooler outside, or bury an old fridge in your yard (or a barrel) you are golden, and get all the potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, etc… preserved in their natural state.  You can also use the “dig a hole” (or use an existing hole like a basement) method for refrigeration, saving you money, and extending the life if your kimchi and sauerkraut. 

 How do you get root cellarable vegetables if you are struggling?  Well, pumpkins are pretty easy - I’d be willing to bet you can get as many as you want the day or two after halloween if you go to a farmstand or any venue that sells them - better yet, make the arrangement first.  I’ve gotten 100 for $5 - and they make good people food, not to mention chicken, goat, sheep, etc…

Many places have gleaning programs - I’ve mentioned them before, but if your area doesn’t have one, you might talk to a farmer about whether you and a friend could glean their fields after they harvest. 

Talk to farmers - they may be selling the potatoes for $2 a lb, but they probably aren’t using that price if you can buy 50lbs at a time - last year our local farm sold potatoes at $12 for 50lbs and “horse” carrots for $6 for 25lbs.  You don’t have to tell anyone you don’t have a horse.  If you are willing to take whatever they have leftover at the end of the day, or to buy their weird surplus of beets, it might be even cheaper.

It isn’t too late in many places to plant some root crops - winter radishes, daikon, turnips, some rutabagas, beets and some carrots will still mature. 

Lots of people don’t harvest their fruit - ask if you can collect apple drops.  Or visit a farm and ask if you can have them - the damaged ones can be sauced or dried.

 - Ok, next cheapest method - lactofermentation.  All you need is salt and water and vegetables.  This is a great way to use wild greens that you harvest from your yard or a public park (just make sure they don’t spray) - dandelion, plantain, lambs quarters - all can be fermented and flavored with a few pennies worth of hot pepper or caraway or other spices.  If you want to keep it a  long time, don’t have a cold cellar or a fridge, bury it in the ground.  Cabbage is generally inexpensive, and again, it isn’t at all too late to plant some greens for fall that can be fermented when it gets cooler.

- Season extension probably comes in next in terms of cheapness.  Depending on where you live it might need a fair bit of stuff, or you might be able to just scrape up some leaves from the ground (or grab a bag someone leaves out on their lawn, and mulch stuff deeply.

I’m going to do a whole post on this tomorrow, but generally speaking, south of the mason dixon line or in the pacific northwest, you can probably overwinter with just mulch and the right crops, north of there you might need to scavenge some old windows to put on top of a few bales of hay or straw (for this you can get the ones that were rained on in the field, or ones that have started to rot, or last year’s dusty ones - you might be able to get them free - or try after harvest festivals and halloween asking about the decorative ones) over your crops.  Plastic sheeting will work too. 

Root crops can often be heavily mulched and survive - parsnips especially, but other crops might manage if you are in a moderately mild climate.

And again, in my lattitude, a lot of season extended crops are being planted right now - it isn’t too late!

- Next is dehydration.  If you live in a dry climate, you can lay things out on a hot day in the sun, or hang apple rings and green beans under the eaves of your attic.  If you live in a humid one, and have a car or can get your hands on a junker, try doing it in the car.  If you heat with wood, hanging things behind or near the woodstove will work. With a pilot light oven you should be able to dry in that.  And dehydrators are commonly for sale cheap - but it might take a while to find one at your price.  Consider posting a request on Craigslist.

- Preservation in salt requires just an awful lot of salt.  This is not yet expensive, but can’t usually be scavenged and does require an initial purchase.

- Preservation in alcohol is kind of pricey, unless you can make your own wine and preserve fruit or cheese in it.  Most of the equipment for winemaking can be scavenged, however.

- Canning can be cheap or expensive.  If you can find free or very cheap canning jars (and they are common where I am), already have a big pot and something to put on the bottom of it (cake rack, canning jar rings laid flat, anything that makes a rack that will elevate the jars), the only cost is the heating energy and the jar lid.  Still, it isn’t totally cheap.

 Pressure canning can be cheap, again if you have a source for jars, and can find a cheap used pressure canner, but again, it is probably the hardest method.

- Freezing is the most expensive method, and one we haven’t talked about much here, because I think for most of us, the rising price of electricity will make it inefficient.  On the other hand, this gets me into one thing that I do want to talk about - sharing.  While I think that for many people, a large home freezer may not be financially doable, there are a lot of such freezers out there, and people could reasonable rent/barter space in them, and share them.

Which brings me to the other point - what’s the best strategy if you can’t afford a piece of equipment?  Find someone to share - maybe get to know a local home canner, and ask if you can borrow their pressure canner in exchange for cutting some wood or watching their daughter.  Talk to the guy with the dehydrator about whether you could trade something for a few hours of dehydration a year.  Now this is tough stuff in our culture - we don’t do this. But it is time, and past time to start - if we don’t share if we don’t learn to share, we’re not going to get very far in a lower energy future.

 I’ve written before that I don’t think there should be any conflict between the people who are prepping like mad and can buy stuff and those who can’t. Those of us who can are getting ready for the same world those who can’t are - and the odds are good that we’re going to need each other - even if it is just someone willing to help cut five zillion strawberry hulls out in exchange for a chance to use the dehydrator next.  The person who owns enough food preservation equipment to feed India is going to have a labor shortage in many cases - the person who has no money often has some time they can share. 

Some one on a list I was on once referred to it as “building the village before the villagers are ready” - the truth is that if you’ve got money, spending it on useful tools is a good thing.  If you haven’t, get knowledge, a little practice, and share what you can - because you are bringing something to village too - something absolutely essential - time, energy and ability.