Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fall Bucket List: 35 Frugal Things to do This Autumn

Fall is officially here, and while this fleetingly golden season graces our presence for a few short months, I want to make the most of it. So far on my autumn bucket list, I’ve already picked apples, walked through a pumpkin patch, watched a sunset over a harvest field, and even gone on a rabbit hunt with Dave. We didn’t get anything on the hunt, but he’s pretty dedicated this year so it won’t be long before he brings home some small game.

I’m in a list kind of mood, so here are 35 free (or almost free) things to do in the fall:

Take a long walk in the woods
Especially in the early morning or late afternoon. Don’t have woods  nearby? Find a park with trees, or an arboretum. Don’t miss those trees and colors when they reach their peak!

Make hot cocoa or cider and sit outside
…with a blanket and a good book, or a friend you love.

Carve a pumpkin
If I’m not blessed with a free pumpkin in the fall, I wait until the grocery store pumpkins go on sale, usually mid-late October, and buy them CHEAP. Even cheaper if you wait until early November.

Spend an afternoon in the country.
It helps if you know someone with land somewhere—ask if you can come explore it!

Do fall cleaning and get rid of clutter
What better way to cozy down for the winter than to prepare your living space to be a place of comfort? For me, clutter = stress. So cleaning and purging unwanted “stuff” is cathartic, and often leads to a little extra cash via selling the stuff on craigslist, consignment shops, etc.

Have a garage sale
Better yet, have a huge sale and really purge your stuff! Whatever doesn’t sell by the end of the sale, donate to a thrift store.

Go to local high school football games
This is a fun—usually cheap but not free—way to get out into your community, enjoy the weather, and see a game. Invite your friends, it’s way more fun than hitting the mall.

Pick apples
This CAN be a free activity! Ask around, you probably know someone with a tree overloaded with fruit they can’t eat all by themselves, and they would gladly let you come take some off their hands.

Make pies
…apple, pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan, apple cranberry, mincemeat, quiche, pot pie, you name it.

Have a fire and make s'mores
Fires are the best. You can sit around a fire with good people around you and talk and laugh for hours. And eat s’mores, of course.

Gather pine cones for Christmas decor
I love fresh pine cones every year for simple Christmas decorating. Fall is the time to grab them from under those trees!

Gather leaves to hang in a window or make leaf-rubbing art
The child in me still loves to collect big, vibrant leaves when I’m on a walk and save them for as long as they retain their color. Often they dry quickly and turn brown, but I am determined to find a way to preserve them for a slightly longer time. 

Hunt and forage
There is plenty of good eating for free, provided by the almighty. If you're not a hunter yet, ask someone who is to take you along and you may find that you like it. And fall is one of the best times to forage--just be sure you use an edible plant guide and be cautious as you begin this hobby. 

Take a bike ride
Choose a warm fall day and bike a trail, if you have one nearby. You feel so good after a long bike ride.

Borrow a kayak and enjoy a lake before the freeze
Just don’t fall into the chilly water.

Make soup
Seriously, there are some incredible soup recipes out there on the web. This is a big one on my list this year; I’m going to make a different soup every week, and freeze leftovers for later in the winter—if there are any leftovers!

Have a fall picnic
Cozier than a summer picnic, with fewer bugs! Pack hot pot pies or soup in a thermos!

Process all those apples!
If you did find a free source of apples, you probably have a lot. Make apple sauce, mincemeat, or apple butter to be canned, or apple crisp or pie to freeze for a quick dessert to throw in the oven later.

Notice light
It has it's own special quality this time of year.

Take a brisk walk on the first morning with frost or fog!
Maybe this is a repeat on the list, but seriously, early morning + frost + fog = stunningly beautiful.

Jump in fall rain puddles
I hope you have some waterproof boots, but if not, do it anyway.

Roast vegetables
My favorite way to cook anything is roasting, and when the weather gets cool again, I go all out and roast absolutely everything. Try any mix of root veggies roasted in olive oil/coconut oil, salt, and pepper, with herbs of your choice.

Roast a turkey, even if it’s not thanksgiving
. . . especially if like us, you've had one in the freezer for several months. One turkey feeds two people for a week or more!

Sort your clothes, getting rid of anything not worn since before last fall, and storing summer clothes away for next year.
Even if you’re not donating or selling unwanted clothes, it’s still such a nice refresher to sort out seasonal clothes and remind yourself of the items you’re excited to wear again this fall and winter.

Write poetry
 As cheesy as it may seem, autumn is a time of inspiration for many. Maybe it's not poetry, it's short stories, or a novel. Just write.

Bake to warm up your kitchen!
It doesn’t really matter what’s in your oven, just so that it’s baking and your abode is becoming the warmest, best smelling place on earth. I’d recommend apple crisp.

Cook cinnamon sticks, vanilla, and citrus on your stove top to make your house smell incredible.
A pot of water simmering on the stovetop with any number of delicious-smelling, aromatic foods/spices, can literally lift your mood. Scent is a powerful thing.

Turn off your ac and open up those windows!
Fall air smells incredible.

All this slowing down to enjoy the fall may help you also to reflect on what's important.

Go to fall farmers markets for the last of the year's harvest
. . .like winter squash and yams!

Eat cranberries, dry cranberries, bake with cranberries, decorate with cranberries. . . just don’t go fake with cranberries! Ever!

Visit national parks
Try to go with friends who have a year pass on their vehicle.

Fall camping
Maybe at a national park! They’re usually very inexpensive. Or really go free and find public land on which you could pitch a tent! Just be sure you know the laws for the area.

Hayrides at fall festivals
Usually churches will throw a free fall event, and even if you don’t have a church, you will be welcome at most church’s fall festivals. Check your local paper or community bulletin board for info. Our church does their fall fest at a farmer’s place just out of town, with real hayrides and everything. Awesome.

See a sunrise and sunset at the peak of the season
Because you could always use another reason to see the sun rise and set.

I'm sure I didn' get everything to do for free in the fall. But that's what's so great about my favorite season-- it's full of potential.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Alternative Thai Dumplings - Cabbage Wrapped

Cooking for our new whole-foods-only diet has been one of the most challenging lifestyle adjustments I’ve ever faced. Not only did we give up the processed foods that were easy to nuke and eat in a pinch (like Trader Joe's yummy frozen pot stickers), resulting in every meal now requiring planning and cooking, we also gave up many of the foods easy to make from scratch but are grain-based. The versatile “All-Purpose” flour has lost any purpose in our life, and that restriction complicates the making of the most basic recipes.

One weeknight meal I had on the rotation pretty regularly before we gave up refined flour was pot stickers. I’d grab a package of won ton wrappers, quickly whip up the juicy, umami-packed meat filling, and throw them on the stove for a meal that’s as good as one from the Thai restaurants we miss from Minneapolis. That recipe was one we immediately missed when we started our diet heavy in veggies, healthy fats, and meat.

Then one day, we got a head of cabbage from the CSA. What do you do with cabbage? I’m already fermenting some sauerkraut, and I’ve done fish tacos with lime-cilantro cabbage slaw, but without the taco shell it just isn’t worth the effort. I could do braised cabbage, but I’d need pastured, organic bacon if I really wanted it to be good. Then BOOM, the idea of pot stickers reemerged, like a long-unhoped for dream.

I never knew that I'd fall in love with cabbage. The cabbage is a beautiful little plant. And when it comes to my dumpling dream, its leaves are strong enough to serve as wrapper, but when cooked, are soft with just a little crunch, perfect for a dumpling redux. 

So I adapted my Thai dumpling/pot sticker recipe using cabbage leaves in place of won ton wrappers, and after a first round, decided it was a winner and made it a staple in the dinner rotation. Now I’m going to share it with you, in case anyone reading this either has cabbage they don’t know what to do with, or misses Asian dumplings because they can’t eat grains.

Makes 2 servings (as a meal) or 4-6 servings (appetizer)
1 head green or purple cabbage, leaves carefully removed to remain intact
1 cup chicken stock (homemade if possible)
1 lb. pastured/organic ground pork or ground turkey
1 large egg
1 bunch green onions, sliced all the way to the very ends
1 lime, juice
1 1”-piece of fresh ginger, grated
2 large cloves garlic, crushed or minced
About ½ cup cilantro, chopped
1 small carrot, grated
1 tbsp. coconut aminos, soy sauce, or tamari
2 tsp. fish sauce

1-2 spicy chili peppers, minced, seeds removed or left in for more heat
Sriracha rooster sauce
Thai Basil leaves (for serving)

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except chicken stock and cabbage. Mix everything very well with a fork or your hands, just be sure to wash well after.

When mixing up the filling, you’ll want to decide how much heat you’d like in the dumplings. We like it hot, so we add 2 small chili peppers, seeds and all, and a generous squirt of Sriracha. (Just fyi, if you’re very careful with added sugars, Sriracha and Fish Sauce both contain a little sugar, so this is a bit of a cheat for us.)

Take your prepared cabbage leaves and fill them with the meat mixture, just enough so you can fold the cabbage all the way around the filling, creating a little pouch. Too much filling may take longer to cook through, too little may just be disappointing. Use your best judgment, but try to be consistent so they are all done at the same time. And don’t worry if they won’t stay closed when you fold them into the little pouches, because the cooking will help relax the cabbage leaves so they no longer resist hugging their delicious filling.

Warm a large, deep skillet or sauté pan (make sure it has a tight-fitting lid) over medium heat. Add half the chicken stock and cook until it starts to bubble and steam. Using tongs, place cabbage dumplings into the simmering liquid. Move quickly and get as many of the dumplings in as you can (should be about half a batch) and place the lid on the pan.

Let it steam and cook the dumplings for 3 minutes, then remove the lid, turn the dumplings over carefully with the tongs, and replace he lid for another 2-3 minutes, or until cooked through. Repeat with remaining stock and dumplings.

To serve: Garnish with fresh Thai basil, lime wedges, and more cilantro. 

Final note on refined flour: I am not kissing flour goodbye forever. David is still avoiding grains entirely until his fitness goals are reached, but I have begun eating a lot of sourdough, made from wholesome ingredients and high quality flour, easily digested because of the fermentation process of sourdough, and it's amazing. I hope to delve into sourdough baking soon and I'll be sure to document my learnings here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Stress Shopping

My sister and I were recently discussing our shared love of saving money. When I say “saving money,” I mean not spending it. I don’t mean saving money the way the average retail advertisement suggests you can save money—by shopping their sales. Have you ever shopped at Kohl’s, for instance? The cashier at the end of your transaction usually says something like, “You saved $35 on your visit today!” But did you really? Most retail “sales” are just hot air. They make a huge profit, even on sale items, and you are tricked into spending money on items you usually don’t need or could have bought used for a fraction of that sale price.

Retailers have marketing down to a science; they know our weakness for shiny new products, and our need to feel like we’re taking advantage of the store, rather than being taken in ourselves. Nobody would go to a Gap and ask to pay for their purchase above the sale price. Nobody wants to feel like they are losing their dollars hand over fist to big, greedy companies. That’s why the “Sale” is a brilliant marketing tool, and one of the most dangerous stimuli for those of us poor souls with a psychological need to de-stress with shopping.

I can definitely say stress shopping is attractive for me on an instinctual level. I have a hard day, something in my life feels unstable or inadequate, and all the sudden, I find myself at Target, or an online clothing store. It’s not even always a frivolous purchase—I often buy household supplies or something I can easily validate as a need. And yet, deep down, I know I was fine without those things before, but the low I was in couldn’t resist the high I get when I shop.

Still, if you ask the people who know me well, they’d say I’m a very frugal person who only shops at thrift stores and garage sales and never spends too much money on material things. And for the most part, that’s true. I’ve learned discipline, and that discipline has helped me make habits that inhibit my stress-shopping instincts. But to say that none of my shopping is motivated by emotion, rather than convention, would be untrue. Even spendthrifts can emotionally binge on a shopping trip at Goodwill. Even frugal people who don’t buy anything new get addicted to garage sales, and finding deals, and couponing—all of which aren’t bad on their own, but can lead in a very subtle way to the same kind of materialistic idolatry as any other kind of emotional shopping.

What I’m talking about here isn’t how much money you spend, how well you follow your budget, or where you shop. I’m talking about contentment. The emotional urge to shop is an agreement in your heart with the lie that God won’t provide enough to meet your needs. I’m not saying shopping is wrong! It isn’t. It’s amoral, like money. It’s not shopping that is the problem, but the love of shopping.

I thank The Lord that He has placed David and I in the financial spot we’re in. We have enough, we are well-fed and clothed, and we don’t have to work three jobs each to keep a roof over our heads. But oddly enough, what I’m really thankful for is that we don’t have too much; that we do have financial pressures and bills, and a student debt-load which we must use fiscal discipline to conquer. If we had started out our marriage without the debt, sure, it would have been easier—we would be in a house by now instead of downsizing to a snug little one-bedroom, but we wouldn’t have had to learn the kind of contentment that comes with having just enough, and no more. I wouldn’t have to search my heart before a trip to Target if we were riding on easy street financially, but perhaps that lack of introspection would have been an unnoticed barrier between me and real contentment.

In the end, what matters is not how little money you spend, but how much contentment you choose to have.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Healthy Compromise? Food Philosophies of a Thinking Eater

Disclaimer: the content below is highly editorial. I’m pretty much ranting in this post, so if you don’t care to hear my thoughts on the food industry and standing up to “The Man” of big agribusiness, maybe you should scroll down to a fluffier post, like my end of summer lemonade. Thanks.

Let me be the first to say, I’m not good at meal planning. I’m also pretty terrible at adhering to a strict budget; instead I find myself trying to spend no money ever, and each purchase feels like a concession to the fact that life costs money. When I have the good fortune to receive food or goods for free, it feels like: “Yes, this is how it should be! Money— why bother? It just runs out.”

Ah, to live in a dream world. But I don’t, so I must cope with reality and do so cheerfully.


The conflict inside me lately has been how to resolve my unchanging budget restrictions with the very incompatible demands of healthy eating. Good food is not cheap.

One resolution has been advised by Paleo guru Robb Wolf, who suggests that although not ideal, “healthy” can mean feedlot meats and standard petro-grown produce, as long as you’re not eating grains and refined sugars.

Um, really? Because all that bacon you say we should be eating… have you ever seen what they feed those pigs? And pigs just soak up garbage, they don’t filter it out with multiple stomachs like cows. Now if I can eat bacon from a pig that was pastured and fed naturally, then yes PLEASE, bring on the bacon. But grocery-store-brand, nitrate-cured, low-grade bacon at $2.99/lb… I’m not wagering on the health roulette that that’s good for me.

And what about E. coli and other super-bugs growing in the unhealthy environment of the feedlot?  How about the under-regulated, mass-slaughtered cattle that are so caked with feces, and so quickly slaughtered side by side, that the transfer of that feces to the meat is practically inevitable, and with it, all these antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Some folks have actually died from eating infected meat. Mostly children. Perhaps the logic is that you only have a chance of contracting one of those antibiotic-resistant strains of deadly bacteria from feedlot meats, but if you’re eating a grain-based diet, you’re definitely going to have problems with your insulin and other metabolizing hormones and wind up either diabetic or rife with Western diseases.

Where is the compromise for the everyday person between eating a “perfect” diet that costs a fortune (not to mention all the planning-ahead it seems to require), and eating a “standard American” diet which is ignorant of its food’s quality, sustainability, or healthfulness? If you follow Nutritionists’ advice, every food seems to be a villain, and every food a hero, depending on which nutrition fad you’re listening to at the moment.

I suppose these thoughts relate back to an earlier post, in which I came to the conclusion that fad diets and too-strict food dogmas don’t really solve the problem. What most of these trends boil down to is “Nutritionism,” a style of food phobia only capable of such widespread acceptance in a place like modern day America.

How I’d really thrive, is finding a way to practically, affordably, and naturally receive food from the small farms and culinary artisans in my area, without ever having to access any arm of the huge agri-business machine that feeds the common American. Wouldn’t we all benefit from that kind of arrangement? The only things I’d really miss are the few imported items I can’t resist buying because they are inexpensive and just plain good: avocados, European cheeses, etc.

I can visualize how different the agricultural countryside would look in our country if every farm was a small, traditional farm, with multiple crops and a variety of animals to complete each farm’s small ecological loop. Driving down I35 through Iowa would look (and smell!) a whole lot more like the pastoral-romantic countryside depicted on our hydrogenated-butter-style-spread containers, and a lot less like the monotonous corn, soy, and meat factories (CAFOs) represented there now.

In this kind of system, we wouldn’t need so many nutrition experts. They would not need to tell us if our food was healthy or not, because we would know, the way our ancestors did in the early formation of The United States, and we could simply enjoy our food and live our lives. The Lord’s Prayer asking “Give us this day our daily bread” would not need to be understood symbolically, because our bread would be real bread, milled from fresh grains, risen through natural yeast, and nourishing us the way bread should. Our food would be food, not a product.

We would need to have lots more farmers, however, and tons and tons of the farms we now have would have to be overhauled from the soil up to make them fertile places for crops again, because of all the destruction of petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Could we ever restore the land for small farms again? I don’t know. I dream of that. But I also see, in my cynical, pessimistic understanding of the culture at large, that money moves everything, and the average person is simply too comfortable in their ignorance to vote with their dollar for such a massive change in the way things work. People like to spend as little money on food as possible, and in our country, that’s Walmart, McDonalds, and processed (corn and soy-heavy) foods.

Here are some small solutions I’m following to help make my own family’s provision more local, sustainable, and affordable at the same time:

Buy produce for a whole week in one trip to the farmer’s market

By taking your budgeted amount to the Farmer’s Market and buying what’s the most cost-effective, you buy the most local, fresh, and in-season vegetables at the same or much lower prices than the standard grocery store produce fare. I’ll often receive free produce from these local farmers, like when I only have $2 left of my shopping budget and they throw in some extra pounds of apples anyway, or when I’m eyeing a purple cabbage and the farmer just wants me to try it so he gives it to me for free (these both happened to me recently.)

Research sources of meat from a farm nearby

You can save a ton by buying meat in bulk straight from the farm, especially if you’re used to buying organic pastured meat from the store. When buying produce at the farmers market, ask the growers if they happen to raise meat as well, and sometimes, if you make a connection, they will be willing to sell you part of their families’ meat. Or you’ll meet farmers whose specialty is pasture-raised meat—score! I just found a local farmer who does pastured pork at a very good rate, even if you don’t buy a whole hog at once.

Find friends who hunt/forage

If you know someone who loves the sport of hunting, they may have their hands on more meat by the end of hunting season than they want or need, and would be willing to sell or even give it to you for the cost of processing at a butcher’s shop. And if you know someone who is skilled at foraging, ask them to take you along and learn what wild foods can be picked, and how to eat them. Nature still provides food for all. And wild game isn’t scary, because after all, you know exactly where it came from and how it was processed into cuts of meat, unlike the mysterious “meats” you buy at the grocery store. It’s really fun to learn new dishes that can be made from unique game meat. Rabbit, as I’ve mentioned, is a favorite of mine.

Cook from scratch

When you eat meals you made yourself, you control the ingredients, and you save money. The better you get at cooking, the more you enjoy the potential for homemade delicacies, and the less you’re even interested or feel dependent on those drive-through meal sources. David and I eat out so rarely now, and it’s not just a budget thing. We just don’t consider fast food or even most restaurants as providing food worth spending our money. Now when we eat out, we choose nicer places that offer real food, cooked with skill and creativity, and transparent about where it came from. Many restaurants now are jumping on the local foods bandwagon, and that’s a good thing. I want to spend my money at a restaurant where the ingredients are the freshest and most seasonal.

I feel like I have much more to say, but I have to go to work now. And I have a feeling I’ll have plenty more foodie rants in later posts.

P.S. Here is a blog I just discovered that is from a family that totally exemplifies my ideals. They DO exist! http://www.nourishingdays.com/