Sunday, April 29, 2012

Getting Started On Gardening

When we moved in, we asked the landlord if we could plant a garden, and got permission. Immediately, we started planning. As these things go, our plans got bigger and bigger – never completely out of control or ridiculous, but pretty elaborate for a couple that has successfully made one garden ever (and it had all of four different things in it).

This time, however, Randy had been reading and researching different things to plant and what would grow here, planting schedules, etc. We were ready. Unfortunately, a combination of nasty weather, a failed grow-box experiment, and lack of funds to buy the dozen different packets of seeds we wanted combined to simplify our plans.

The final plan:
Three raised beds made from 2”x6” boards. The beds are 3'x7'. We chose those dimensions for two reasons. First, we knew we'd have a trellis of some sort built along the back of the beds and wanted to ensure we could easily reach the back of the bed, so we didn't want to make it more than three feet deep. The seven foot length was a result of Home Depot's pricing; the true 8-foot lengths cost $5/board, but the slightly shorter boards we bought only cost $3/board. Sold!

Along the back of the main beds, we built a trellis using leftover fencing. It's not as tall as we will probably end up with (only about five feet) so we will probably make a PVC/twine extension that – while not attractive – will serve to let the vines grow taller.

Herb/garlic bed
One raised bed measuring 1'x7' for herbs. This got changed into a garlic bed because of a lack of herbs and a plethora of garlic. I'm ok with this; there is no such thing as too much garlic.

One planter measuring 6”x3' from my sister for planting garlic.

One “planter” for blueberries made from a large rubbermaid bin.

A non-raised bed along the side of our patio for strawberries, measuring 2'x8' or so. This one needs the most work still.

We filled the beds with high-quality fertilizer courtesy of my mom...more specifically, my mom's three horses. The soil here is not great – sandy and rocky – but the composted horse manure should help it out significantly. It took two pickup loads of manure to fill all the beds. The manure is dense and rich and loaded with worms, which should help the mixing process immensely.

As far as crops go, we had originally planned for about 20 different types of vegetables, including some that needed to start inside. Randy built a miniature grow-box out of a milk crate, some old yogurt containers for planters, and a shop light, and tried to start ten or so broccoli plants. Unfortunately, each container seemed to grow something (or things) different from each other, none of which looked like broccoli. Combining that with the need to use our starter room for a nursery, we decided to put that off until next year...or maybe the year after...when we could afford to build a more permanent station in the garage.

Also, as it got closer to time to plant, our budget got tighter and we didn't have the money to go on our seed-buying spree. We took stock of what we had already and got some freebies from my mom, who always has leftover seeds and my sister, who is working on a sustainable garden – using the crops she has to collect seeds to re-plant the next year. Check her blog out at! 

Now our plan is to plant the following:
Peas and beans along the trellises. You can never have too many of these two things, in my opinion. When we were kids, Sarah and I got in trouble every year for stripping the garden of peas. I doubt my restraint has gotten much better. Fresh peas are one of the world's tastiest treats. Green beans aren't quite as irresistable right off of the vine, but I can make any excess beans into spicy dilled green beans, which are irresistable.

Potatoes. Just yesterday, my sister gave us a bag of seed potatoes. We haven't quite decided where these will go yet – we may put them in a bed, but we might also find/build a container for them so we can try some techniques to maximize output.

The garlic is growing quickly
Garlic. My sister got me a planter and three types of garlic for my birthday, and my mom gave me a bulb of elephant garlic to use to plant. Of course, I planted them way too late, so they won't get as wonderful and developed as they should, but better late than never!

Tomatoes. We got some seeds from my parents, but it's too late to plant seeds, so we'll get some starts from my school's upcoming FFA sale. I love working at a school with an active FFA. We might also try making some of our own starts just as a test – we have the seeds, after all, and there are plenty of ways to use tomatoes.

Cucumbers. Our plan was to plant and pickle, but we have seeds for slicing cucumbers, not pickling cucumbers. We'll do some research into what kinds of pickles we can make/how to use the larger cucumbers for pickling, but we might just end up with lots of salad fixings!

Lettuce. Not much to say about it except it'll be nice to have on hand to make salads. You know, to use up all those cucumbers!

Squashes. We're planting yellow summer squash, grey zuccini, patty pan, and miniature pumpkins. These take up a lot of room, but we love eating squash (and mini-pumpkins are just fun!) so it's worth it.

The strawberry patch still needs a bit of work!
Strawberries. My mom has extra plants she's going to give us to get started here; hopefully they thrive. Fresh ripe strawberries are marvelous. Also, a strawberry bed to the side of the patio will look much nicer than the current crop of dandelions.

Blueberries - still alive!
Blueberries. We've had these for three years now, and somehow didn't kill them. The first year, they stayed on our front porch in the bags they were purchased in. The next, they got moved into old cat-litter buckets. We upgraded them into a rubbermaid bin this year; we'd plant them permanently, but we're renting and don't want to have to leave them behind. We haven't gotten any berries from them yet, but this year we hope to get a few.

The square foot grid laid out and ready to plant
We're mostly using the square-foot gardening plan from this book. Basically, it calls for dividing the garden up into one-foot squares (hence the fashionable yellow yarn in our garden!) and planting each seed to maximum density within a square. This helps get the most out of the garden and eliminate much of the need for weeding, as the vegetables grow more closely together and don't leave room for weeds. I like this a lot, because I loathe weeding. There is nothing fun about it, and it never seems to end. Reducing the need to weed is a big benefit to any garden plan!

I'm sure that we will have plenty of learning-curve experiences throughout the year, including plenty of mis-steps as we miss deadlines for planting/harvesting as we try to juggle a garden, a toddler, and a newborn. It should be fun, though!

Next week: Jam! Because really, who doesn't love jam?

This post is linked to Made From Scratch Mondays at The Daily Dish

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Broke Doesn't Mean Boring: Decorating a Nursery on the Cheap

Last weekend, Randy and I finally put the last touches on Parker's room. Considering he's due in two weeks, I'd say it was about time! Being on a tight budget, we didn't have much cash to spend, so we had to figure out how to furnish and decorate it on the cheap. All told, we spent less than $100. Looking back, we realized that we spend about that amount on Zoey's nursery also.

Considering how much people can spend on nurseries, we feel that we did pretty well. If you go into any store that sells baby furniture – cribs, dressers, rocking chairs, etc. Any one item can set you back hundreds of dollars. It's ridiculous.

Especially when you consider all the free – or nearly free – stuff out there. Because really, once anyone's kid has outgrown their swing, bouncer, crib, etc., the main goal seems to be to get rid of it quickly so it stops taking up room in their house; after all, most kids just accumulate more and more and more things. 

Here's how we furnished the rooms:

Zoey's crib, converted to a toddler bed
We didn't have to pay for a crib for either child. For Zoey, we got one from my sister, who had kept the crib she bought for her daughter and had recently come to the decision to not have more children. It is a convertible crib/toddler bed; Zoey is now using it in toddler bed form.

Parker's Crib
For Parker, we got a crib off of Between Freecycle and Craigslist, you can find almost everything baby-related for free or next-to-free. Both these free cribs were sturdy and in good condition.

                                     Rocking Chair
I believe a rocking/gliding chair is important for those late night please-dear-lord-go-to-sleep sessions, as well as for feeding. That doesn't mean I want to pay a month's rent for one. Rocking chairs – or the modern favorite “gliding” chair sell for a LOT of money. When we were shopping for Zoey, we saw chairs from $300-$1,000. And they didn't even give massages. We got ours from Craigslist for a whopping $10. It's a basic rocking chair that gets the job done.

This is another essential. Not only does it perform the basic function of holding clothes, it provides the best place to put a changing station (unless you're rich enough to buy a separate changing table for $100-$200). We got a contoured changing pad (that you need for the top of a changing table anyway) from a friend who was off-loading baby equipment and put it on top of the dresser.

Zoey's re-fabbed dresser
The problem with dressers is that people so rarely get rid of them. After all, unless they're in really bad shape, they still hold clothes just fine. Heck, I still use the dresser I had when I was 10. So does my sister. With Zoey, this wasn't a problem, as we had an extra dresser that came with our house. It was dark, ugly wood, but Randy stripped off the stain and painted it to match the room.

Dressers appear on Craigslist and Freecycle occasionally, but unless you are sitting and watching constantly so you can be sure of being the first responder, your odds of getting one are low. We attempted to get a half-dozen or so – a couple of times replying less than an hour after the ad was posted – and got beat out for all of them. If you live in a metropolitan area, it's easier because there are more dense postings, but it didn't make sense for us to drive 70 miles each way for a free dresser.
It's modern.  For the '80s....

That meant we had to go out and buy one. Our budget meant we were limited to a chintzy press board chest of drawers from a store like Target, or second-hand shops. We finally found a dresser at Goodwill for the bargain price of $40. That's the most we spent on any one item for either nursery. It isn't the most attractive dresser – black lacquer and gold trim – but it's sturdy, and has enough room to hold not only clothes for the first six months, but also all of the cloth diapers and accoutrements.

We spent a bit more on decor for Zoey's room than for Parker's, mainly because we painted Zoey's room. Randy painted the walls a pale yellow and the ceiling a pale pink. We used the same paint on her dresser. Now that we're in a rental, we didn't want to pain the walls, so we didn't have that expense.  If we weren't renting, we'd have painted the walls again - for a relatively small expense, it really makes the room look more coordinated. 

For both Zoey and Parker, we wanted to put their names on the wall, so we got craft letters from JoAnns ($2/letter) and painted them, then hung them over the crib. Unless you name your child Evangelica or something equally long, this is a cheap but nice decor.

If we had any artistic skill whatsoever, we would have painted the walls rather than buying art...but we don't. We originally had flower decals on the wall for Zoey (a package at Target runs around $10) and that was it. Then Randy's sister Megan – who DOES have artistic skill – painted some pictures that we hung instead.

For Parker, we decided to craft it. We wanted to decorate with a dinosaurs. Again, our lack of artistic ability combined with our lack of money limited our funds. We decided to make our own wall art by making frames from frames from 1”x2” lumber ($2/8 foot board) and stretching dinosaur-patterned fabric across them. We had a little snag in our plans when we realized that apparently dinosaurs are not in style any more, so there's not much in the way of dino cloth. We did manage to find a couple of prints we liked, and went to town.

While we were at it, we found this neat United States map print for Zoey's room. We spent about $15 total on cloth and another $15 or so on the wood – not too bad.

We got Zoey's curtains at Target for about $15 – they had some with an extra-thick backing to block out light (in both houses, we gave her a room with a western exposure). Randy's sister made the curtains for Parker's room.

Swing/Bouncer/Floor Gym/Playpen/Diaper Genie/Hamper
All of these, we got for free from a friend who was off-loading baby gear or for our baby shower for Zoey. When Parker is done with them, we'll pass them on to someone else for free. Considering the extremely short time they are used, any free version you find will likely be in excellent condition.

We got two years' worth of clothes for Zoey (so many, in fact, that she never wore some of them!) and one year's worth or so for Parker for free. Just like baby-related furniture, people want mainly to get rid of the extra clothes taking up room – and especially for the first year or two, kids wear clothes for such a short period of time that many of the clothes are in new or near-new condition.

High Chair
Ok, this isn't for the nursery, but you'll need one eventually. There are tons of chairs out there with various add-ons. They can get quite large, not to mention expensive. We originally got one for free from my sister, but found that it wasn't much good when we left the house, since it wouldn't fit in the trunk of my car. The answer – a $30 bare-bones chair from Ikea. It's a simple molded plastic seat with four straight metal legs that snap in and a tray. Easy to clean, easy to transport, and space-efficient.

We also saved a lot of money with Zoey by making our own baby food and freezing it – I'm sure I'll make a post about that when I start doing it for Parker. We're going a step further in savings this time by trying cloth diapers – now that we have a good washer/dryer, it makes sense and doesn't seem to be that much more work than disposables. I'm confident that you'll get an update on that, as well!

All in all, we discovered that – with the notable exception of a dresser – just about everything essential for babies is easy to find for free or next-to-free. If you aren't the first in your family/friend group to start having kids, you'll probably have most of what you need given to you before you even think to ask.  Otherwise, your Craigslist and Freecycle will supply a plethora of options.

If we had to start over this time, I'd have started the dresser search as soon as I knew I was pregnant, rather than just looking intermittently. Free/cheap dressers do exist, but they get snatched up quickly; this makes sense when you consider the price of a new dresser (easily $300 or more). How much you want to spend on decor is up to you, but by doing a little more work yourself, you can decorate the room for less than $50 even without purchasing from thrift stores.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Better Late Than Never: Egg Rolls!

April Stock-up: Egg Rolls!

I know I've missed a couple of weeks. This was due to a combination of not getting a photo of a cooked egg roll (the horror!) and wanting to wait for that, and just plain forgetting. Also, Zoey learned how to climb out of her crib and we had to transition to a toddler bed, which meant that none of us got much sleep for a week or so. And I got lazy – probably due to eating way too many egg rolls!  Here it is, better late than never (and here I am, vowing to not skip posting any more because it's too easy to get out of the habit!)

We've only done a couple of intentional stock-ups so far – turkey bratwursts and peirogis – but we're already seeing some savings in our grocery bill. Last month, we only used about 2/3 of the meat we bought because we filled in some gaps with food from our stock. That meant that this month, we could get a London broil, cheap steaks, the materials for egg rolls and a turkey for future bratwurst-making in addition to our usual meat selections and still come in on budget for our shopping trip. Also, it saved us from ordering pizza during conference week (admittedly, I'm conflicted about this as a benefit; yes, it was cheaper and healthier to eat brats and peirogis, but I love pizza and we have a fantastic pizza place less than a mile away).

However, anything gets old if you have it too often, so in the interest of building variety in our stockpile, so we are sticking with our decision to try and stock up on a different item each month. This month, it's egg rolls. Since childhood, I've loved egg rolls. I thought I had a perfect opportunity to learn how to make them in college – my best friend is Korean and her mom agreed to teach me. Unfortunately, when I got to her house, she had already made the filling and had it all set up to wrap. When I asked how to make the filling, she said “it's meat, vegetables, and seasonings”. Not the most helpful answer, but accurate.

A couple of summers ago, I came upon this recipe and decided to go for it, but with different wrappers – we had white people problems figuring out the wrappers we first bought. The wrappers I use are smaller, but easier to find at a general grocery store; every major chain seems to carry them. The benefit to this is it makes more egg rolls. The downside to this is also that it makes more egg rolls.

To give you a perspective, here's the pile of filling from our first egg roll experience, with Zoey (four months old at the time) for a size comparison.

As you can see, this is not a project you want to undertake on your own, unless you have a 10-year-old's level of energy and a strong love for repetitive tasks. The prep work is pretty easy, but rolling a trillion and a half egg rolls gets old in a hurry.

Too big is better than too small - trust me!
Before you start, make sure you have a large container for the filling – or a nice flat surface area that you can mix all the filling on. We started by using our biggest bowl, but it didn't quite do the trick. Luckily, Randy has a 10-gallon fermenter, which was large enough and then some. A large stock pot would probably do the trick, but isn't as fun as overkill. You will also want an old pillowcase to wring out the veggies after they sit in salt to draw the moisture out. You can do this step without a pillowcase, but it takes longer.

Before you begin to roll, make sure you have a nice assembly area prepared – the process will take long enough as it is, and your hands will be goopy, so you don't want to have to go looking for things. You'll want 2-3 large platters or cookie sheets to stack the finished rolls on, your packs of wrappers, a small bowl of water for each person to use to seal the rolls, and your container/mound of egg rolls. Plus a beverage in a container you don't mind getting gooped.
Our assembly station - we stood on opposite sides of the counter
and it went much more quickly than we anticipated!

Time-wise, plan about 20-30 minutes for prep, an hour to let the veggies sit and salt , and 30-60 minutes or so to roll, depending on how many people you have and how quickly you can roll. Then you can cook some and put the rest in the freezer for a few hours before packaging.

After learning my lesson from the peirogis (some of them weren't quite frozen when I packaged them, and stuck together during cooking – the flavor still rocked, but they looked like a science experiment gone wrong and a couple of them popped open in the water when I tried to separate them), I made sure to leave the egg rolls in the freezer until they were thoroughly frozen to prevent them from sticking together. In the past, we have also used waxed paper/tin foil to separate them, which worked just fine.

You can freeze these either cooked or uncooked; this time I opted for uncooked because it lessens the time commitment considerably if you don't have to wrap AND fry ten billion egg rolls. Also, I prefer these freshly fried, so freezing them uncooked makes more sense. To cook, just put in the hot oil frozen – I found this works best both for maximum crispiness and because the egg rolls have a tendency to adhere to the packaging as they thaw, which opens holes. If you want to cook then freeze, I find that baking them works well to re-crisp the wrappers without adding more oil.

The final product!  These were fried after being frozen and cooperated
quite nicely - they didn't splatter overly much and still got crisp, just took a little longer to cook
This made about 100 egg rolls. We froze them in packs of five, so we have enough egg rolls to last for many, many meals. Because I can't fathom the thought of egg rolls without sweet and sour sauce, but ALSO can't justify buying bottle after bottle of the stuff, I made my own using this recipe.  It turned out decently, although a little less tangy than the store-bought brand. For the savings, its' definitely a worthy substitute.

As far as costs go, these aren't ridiculously cheap like peirogis, but the cost-per-meal is low. We spent just under $40 on ingredients, including sweet and sour sauce to eat them with, with the largest costs coming from the wrappers ($10 for six packages) and the beef (around $10). Per-meal, this turned out to be about $2 – not so bad! Add some fried rice and there's no need to order Chinese food!

2.5-3 lbs of ground beef, cooked through and drained off all fat.
12 oz salad shrimp, thawed and drained. You can omit or use larger shrimp chopped coarsely.
1 medium head white cabbage, shredded
2 medium napa cabbages shredded
5-6 carrots julienned
3 medium onions julienned
1lb Korean sweet potato starch noodles or rice noodles, prepared according to package instructions, drained and cut into 2 inch lengths with kitchen shears
1 cup or more of oyster sauce
3 eggs beaten lightly
1 cup or more of plain breadcrumbs

90-100 egg roll wrappers, thawed if frozen - this equals 6 packs of the square wrappers found in most grocery stores

In a very large mixing bowl combine cabbages, carrots and onions and sprinkle with a couple of teaspoons of plain table salt.

Let sit for 30-60 minutes to allow the salt to penetrate the vegetables to release excess liquid. Rinse thoroughly and drain.

While veggies are salting, brown the beef and cook/chop noodles

Wring out all possible moisture (important for preserving the quality of the final product) by putting 1/3 of the vegetables at a time in an old pillowcase or (in smaller batches in a kitchen towel and twisting it until tight.

Add remaining ingredients and mix until well-combined.

Add approximately 1/4 cup of filling to each wrapper and wrap according to package directions.

To cook, heat about half an inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over a medium hot burner (6 or 7 on the dial). When the oil is hot (I test by throwing a drop of water in and seeing if it pops quickly - so scientific!) put 5-6 egg rolls in seam side down and fry until golden brown and then flip and fry the other side. Drain well on paper towels.

Serve hot

To Freeze, flash freeze by layering on a cookie sheet (separate layers with parchment paper or wax paper) with egg rolls NOT TOUCHING each other for a couple of hours, or until rolls are frozen hard, then package in ziplocs or food saver bags.   You can skip flash freezing if you separate the rolls with wax or parchment paper prior to freezing them, but I find the flash-freeze method easier and more reliable.

To cook from frozen, add frozen rolls to hot oil.  Follow cooking directions above.

1 small can pineapple juice (or juice from a 15-1/4 oz. can pineapple chunks, drained)
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (or less)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Make a thin slurry with the cornstarch and a small amount of the pineapple juice (1/4 cup or so).  You want the cornstarch to be fully dissolved before you add it to the rest of the ingredients.

Add the cornstarch slurry to the rest of the ingredients in a small saucepan.

Heat over medium heat until sauce is desired thickness.

Next week: decorating a nursery on the cheap! 

Linked to This Week's Cravings at The Daily Dish