March 30, 2009

What A Sap

One of the first (and most drastic) food related price increases that I noticed over the past year or so was the cost of maple syrup. I found it hard to justify the high price of the real thing at the best of times, but when the price almost doubled last spring, there was no way.

There are lots of other things that you can drizzle over a nice stack of pancakes: homemade jam, pear honey, apple sauce (the only way I'd eat them as a kid), or how about homemade creamy honey syrup. But if you crave the traditional taste of maple syrup, it's very easy to recreate at home. My mom always made her own when I was growing up - it's really inexpensive, and tastes a whole lot better than most store bought pancake syrup.

Homemade "Maple" Syrup (makes 2 cups, but can be doubled):

  • 1 cup brown sugar (you can use all white, but the brown adds richness)
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp. maple flavoring (may need to adjust amount depending on brand)

Combine sugars and water in a pot. Bring mixture just to the boil (don't let it bubble for more than a minute or two or you'll end up with hard candy). Remove from heat and stir in the maple flavoring. Will thicken as it cools.

Decant into a pitcher or jar to serve (I say this, but more often than not we end up serving it warm right from the pot because we don't realize we're out of syrup until the pancakes are almost done).

This tastes great over homemade blueberry pancakes, but it's also good stirred into plain yogurt, layered with yogurt, fruit, and granola to make a yummy breakfast parfait, or over ice cream.

It may not be the healthiest recipe in my repertoire, but it's definitely one of the most used.

March 20, 2009

Local Politics

One of the things we're enjoying most about living here is the almost daily encounters with local wildlife. One of the most awesome so far happened just a couple of weeks ago.

I stepped out onto the deck one morning to see why the ravens were making such a fuss so close to the house. As I stood there, one of them flew out of the tree over my head and into another one not far away. He was soon followed by a very large, grey bird, which turned out to be a Great Grey Owl.

We've heard this guy making noise in the surrounding woods many times in the two years since we first started coming here, but have never laid eyes on him until now. (I've been told by a local expert on birds of prey that if you've ever been for a walk in the woods, you've been within 100 feet of an owl, and just didn't know it).

I don't know if this was a turf war or what, but the ravens were not impressed that the owl was in the area, and they spent a long time hooting and hollering, trying to scare him off (these photos were taken from inside the house, so they aren't very clear).

It's difficult to tell from the photos, but he was really big, probably about two feet tall (the ravens are huge too, about 3 times the size of a common crow).

After a while, they finally gave up and left him alone, at which point we went out to see if we could get a closer look.

He didn't seem to be at all bothered by our presence, and just sat there while the kids and I gawped in amazement and snapped endless photos of him. He sat in that spot for the rest of the afternoon until night fell, at which point he left without any of the ceremony that accompanied his arrival.

It has apparently been a hard winter for owls in our area, as we've experienced record amounts of snow, making it difficult for them to hunt (and the snow stayed much longer where we are than in other places). Bare ground was just finally starting to show through the snow when we saw him, which might explain why he was being less careful about staying hidden.

A fellow on my husband's vanpool who raises chickens has apparently had birds taken by these owls, so we're going to have to take precautions to guard against that, or we might not be so happy the next time we see him.

March 11, 2009

Organics, etc.

I've been feeling like I should clarify what I was trying to say in my previous post, which actually started out as a much longer, more involved post that I never seemed able to finish because it had become too large and unwieldy. Since I tend to suffer from mental paralysis whenever I feel overwhelmed by something, I kept avoiding it until I finally decided that chopping it into smaller bits might help me get at least some of it out there. I see now that that might have left it incomplete and somewhat disjointed, so I thought I'd expand on some of my thoughts before moving on to some recipe posts.

First off, I wasn't at all suggesting that I no longer support organic food and agriculture. There's obviously nothing healthy about eating food grown using chemicals, and it's unsustainable to farm this way. But, just because something is considered "conventional" or "non-organic" doesn't necessarily mean that it was produced using invasive, unsustainable methods (and likewise, just because you can buy something in a "natural foods" store doesn't mean it's better for you or the planet). I think buying locally makes it easier to gain firsthand knowledge of how our food is produced and where it comes from. Sure, that box of California grown lettuce might say "organic" on it, but what the label doesn't mention is that it took several times more energy to package and truck that lettuce to your local grocer than that lettuce actually contains. Will your salad be as nutritious after it's long journey? Not likely.

David Suzuki, one of my heroes and someone whose opinion I trust, has this to say about the organic versus local debate:

"It's best to buy locally grown organic food. But given the choice between imported organic and local produce, buying local is better."

"Since shipping food long distances requires packaging and chemical treatments to prevent rotting and over-ripening, buying locally grown helps reduce the waste, energy and materials needed in this process.

Buying locally grown fruits and veggies also helps conserve precious farmlands and wildlife habitats. In Canada, the best agricultural land is located near our largest cities. Keeping these areas in production conserves fertile land and preserves biological diversity for the future.
Buying locally contributes to the financial viability of nearby farmers and other producers. In the long-run this may ensure access to fresh, seasonal food and greater food awareness among city dwellers.

Fresh food tastes much better than food that’s been stored and shipped across the country--or around the world.

Locally grown produce tends to be fresher and contain higher levels of vitamins than the imported variety. Food that has to be transported long distances is often preserved with waxes, irradiation, gases and synthetic chemicals, such as fungicides and sprout inhibitors."

So, while this is how I usually shop, there are a few things that I do insist on buying organic (whether local or not), potatoes and apples being two of them. This is largely because of the increased risk of pesticide residues with these crops, as well as the fact that our family tends to eat larger quantities of both of these foods. Thankfully, they are both relatively inexpensive to buy organic, and grow in abundance on our local farms.

It's more difficult to find organic berries in our area, but we were lucky enough to find a local farm that practices Integrated Pest Management, and this is where we usually get our blueberries (which tend to have one of the lowest level of pesticide residues even among conventionally grown fruits anyway). I do prefer my strawberries to be organic, however (since conventionally grown ones test very high for pesticide residues), and will often buy small quantities of these when in season to freeze for later use. Blueberries and strawberries were two fruits that I set out establishing in our small garden once we had our own yard, and since I was sneaky and brought the plants with us when we moved, we will hopefully have enough home grown fruit to sustain us in coming years.

Gleaning is another way that we have managed to keep ourselves in unsprayed, low cost fruit. We often raid my in-laws' cherry tree during our summer visits (since my husband is willing to climb to great heights in order to pick them), pick gallons of wild blackberries during our summer holidays, and a girlfriend of mine has a pear tree (which she keeps threatening to chop down) that keeps us in yummy jams and sauces year round. Put the word out that you're willing to do the hard labour, and you'd be surprised what people are willing to give away. The fruit doesn't even have to be perfect - the pears that I get are usually undesirable for eating fresh (scabby, etc), but are just fine to use in cooking.

While I usually spend the extra for organic milk and dairy products (largely because any chemicals that the animal is exposed to are concentrated and excreted in the butterfat), conventional milk in Canada is a little less of a risk than it is in the U.S. Bovine growth hormone has never been approved for use here, and the dairy farmers in my family have told me stories of whole batches of milk being dumped if the smallest trace of antibiotic residue was detected in it. Because of this, I'm not too worried about occasionally buying the non-organic version of a favorite dairy product.

One way that we are able to have organic yogurt, sour cream, and butter at close to the same price as conventional milk is to make our own, as organic milk and cream in their original state are usually much cheaper to buy than their soured/churned counterparts. This way, a litre (quart) of organic yogurt can be had for less than $3, instead of $5 or $6. If you find that organic milk is still too expensive, making your own dairy products with conventional cream and milk will help reduce costs even further.

Another excellent way to avoid the high cost of milk (organic or not) altogether is to make your own soy milk as a substitute, something we have done for years for pennies on the dollar compared to milk.

I realize that not everyone will be open to my next suggestion, but one of the reasons we are able to keep our food expenses so low is that we don't eat meat. My dad was here over the holidays and, knowing what the chances were of me having meat in the house (you can read more about my relationship with meat here), he brought a package of steaks to have for dinner one night. When I saw the "sale price" listed on the sticker, I almost died - I could have fed our family of four for two whole days for the cost of those steaks, and they weren't even organic! Don't get me wrong, while I was a hard-core vegetarian for many years, we do eat fish now, and have been known to partake in the celebratory turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving. But, since meat has never been a huge part of our diet, none of us particularly miss it, and we are happy to pocket the money that not eating it saves us. Obviously, if you are able to raise your own animals for meat, this doesn't apply, but it's unlikely that we will be joining those ranks anytime soon, so meatless we shall remain.
Eliminating meat from the menu isn't difficult, but it does take a shift in meal planning, and there are dozens of excellent cookbooks full of ideas for budding "money savers" (because this is about saving money, not about converting everyone to vegetarianism) .

Having a solid idea of how much things cost is invaluable when you're trying to save money, so I often take a small notebook with me when I'm shopping to record prices and locations. I dedicate a half a page or so to each item, and jot down the price of that item at various stores. That way, I always know when I see a good price, and whether it's a good enough deal to warrant stocking up.

Here are a few other things that help keep our grocery bill down:

-Our kids drink mostly water now (from the tap) instead of juice. It's better for their teeth anyway (as well as our dental bills)!

-We've cut way back on snack foods, and if we feel like a treat, we'll spend time together baking and trying new recipes instead of splurging on expensive, prepackaged goodies.

-We try to eat smaller amounts at each sitting, making an effort to have leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day (my husband almost never buys a lunch).

-Preparing simple meals with simple ingredients (back to basics).

Using these ideas, we are able to eat a really good, mostly organic diet for between $10 - $15 a day (and we're hoping to take it down lower).

Judging by your excellent comments on my previous post, none of these ideas will be all that new to most of you, but hopefully there will something of use in there for someone.

Before I go, I'd like to share this interview with Jamie Oliver, which aired on CBC recently. He's a real proponent of local (homegrown) food and simple recipes, and has worked hard to make cooking seem less daunting to the home chef. If you haven't seen his latest show yet, do yourself a favor and check it out.

March 09, 2009

Rising Food Costs and Shrinking Budgets

Hello out there!

Obviously I haven't quite gotten a handle on my recent bout of blogging laziness, but I've been feeling a little more inspired lately and am hoping to stage a comeback. I may do occasional updates on the house, but for now, I would like to turn my focus back toward my two other loves: gardening and food.

Many of us are being hit hard by a economic double whammy when it comes to putting food on the table these days. The cost of food has risen at an alarming rate over the past year or so, and difficult economic times (whether they are driven by the economy or self-induced) have left us with less money in our pockets with which to buy it. While I pride myself on being able to provide healthy, organic meals for my family on a limited budget, this ability has been challenged in recent months, and I have had to take a hard look at the reality of our situation and set new priorities. It is with this in mind that I have decided to start a series of posts centering around things we are doing to trim our food budget, with a focus on frugal shopping and simple, cost-effective recipes. I'm also hoping to pick your brains a bit!

Organic food has been a mainstay of our family's diet for a long time, but it's no secret that organics are often much more expensive than their conventional counterparts. One of the fastest ways to cut costs is to switch from buying organic food to buying conventional, which can save you anywhere from 20 - 50% (or more) right off the bat, without any extra effort on your part. This probably sounds like blasphemy coming from someone who claims to be concerned about the health of our bodies and our planet, but the truth is, store-bought organic food is (sadly) a luxury that not everyone can afford.

I find it much easier to make an informed choice about what I'm buying if I'm able to identify those organic items that are worth spending the extra money on. The Safe Shopper's Bible has always been very useful for helping me figure out how to make our food dollars count most. There are also sources online (this is a good one) with lists of those foods that are most important to buy organic.

One of the major ways we've always saved money is by doing and making things ourselves, so I will be talking a lot about this year's vegetable garden, which I'm hoping will provide a lot more of the basic necessities than it did previously. Chickens are in our near future, and there may be other livestock making an appearance as well. Things could get interesting!


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