Sunday, July 27, 2008

If I never live to see another currant…

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that berry picking is the hard part, the REAL hard part is dealing with all those damn berries you picked the day before. What were you thinking picking so many? And you never learn, even if its your third trip berry picking this summer, you still pick more then you could possibly deal with.

Can you tell I’m exhausted?

(Toaster tried to stow away in our basket but he had to stay home.)

So yesterday we shlepped to Connecticut (that’s not really fair, since its just over the border from Foster, but still it was an hour drive!) to pick currants. Every other sane person was picking blueberries but I am always looking for something unusual so we had to pick currants.

The farm had two kinds: black and red currants. We picked both although more of the red because the black were mostly already overripe. We ended up picking almost 12 pounds and the guy was only charging $1.70 a pound!

Today we awoke to the gargantuan task of dealing with 12 pounds of currants. We decided to start with a natural fruit jelly (which means that for pectin we used apples instead of buying pectin to add). We made applesauce with granny smith apples and a lemon. We then strained this and added it to a bunch of the red currants and A LOT of sugar. We cooked this for awhile, put it in sanitized canning jars and put them through a hot water bath. (Our recipe came from The Complete Book of Home Preserving by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine.)

But we still had a lot of berries so we moved on to black currant liqueur (crème de cassis). For this we needed vodka so we went to the liquor store and got two handles of cheap vodka for a total of 20 bucks. We used this recipe: and ended up with a large batch of black currant liqueur and a smaller experimental batch of red currant liqueur.

But lo and behold we still had berries to use so we opted to do fresh berries in syrup. We used a cold pack method so all we had to do was clean the rest of the berries (my fingers look like raisins from rinsing and de-stemming all of them) and then pack them with simple syrup and process them. As I write, at 8:30, we are just taking them out of their hot water bath and we are done for the night. (And it only took all day!)

Our final yield was:
7 pints currants in syrup
7 cups currant jelly (plus a little baby half cup jar)
A lot of black currant liqueur (well in 3 months at least)
Some red currant liqueur (also in 3 months)
And some frozen currants because we just couldn’t fit them in anywhere else

I've got no snappy ending for you tonight, these currants wore me out.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Our Not So Frugal Day

Today we went to our favorite farmer’s market and bought a bunch of expensive organic produce. So we weren’t so frugal, but it’s very environmental! And we’re supporting local businesses! (That’s how I make myself feel better for spending an hour’s wages on a piece of cheese…a very small piece of cheese.)

We got: fennel, red cipollini onions, rainbow chard, lettuce, yellow squash, zucchini, an eggplant, green peppers and Vermont raw milk sharp cheddar (the only kind of fancy cheese I can get my boyfriend to eat is sharp cheddar so we compromise.)

We also went currant picking but you’ll have to wait till tomorrow to hear about that.

P.S. I also need to make a correction: in an earlier post I stated that we have a half acre lot. I was wrong, we have a quarter acre (I clearly should have checked my sources better, just because they're your parents, doesn't make them reliable sources).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

We Make Our Own Damn Salad Dressing!

One of the seven deadly sins (well maybe not deadly, but at least very shameful) of frugal grocery shopping is buying salad dressing. It’s over priced and contains god-knows-what extra chemicals to preserve it.

It’s so ridiculously easy to make your own and if you’ve done all the work of composing your own salad (perhaps even with some of you own fresh garden veggies) wouldn’t it be a shame to put store bought dressing on it? (And please don’t tell me you use the bagged premixed salad, I might cry a little.)

We usually use a simple oil and vinegar (olive and balsamic respectively) dressing which mom puts in a bottle to be shaken right before serving. The best ratio of oil to vinegar is the cause of much contentious debate in our house. I, being a fan of all things sour, favor equal parts oil and vinegar but mom insists you have at least three parts oil to one part vinegar.

Tonight we were having a dim sum themed dinner (o.k. I’ll admit…we were eating frozen dumplings from the local Chinese market) so we decided to make an Asian themed salad. For the veggies we had local organic (oo-la-la) lettuce, turnips, radishes, scallions and a cucumber from our garden. I toasted some sesame seeds to sprinkle on top and for the dressing we used approximately:

-one part sesame oil (or one tablespoon)
-two parts peanut oil (two tablespoons)
-one part rice vinegar (one tablespoon)
-one third part soy sauce (one teaspoon)

I also like to include a sprinkle of sea salt in salad (because dad always insists on salting his salad no matter what) and I find sea salt to be much more pleasant and interesting then regular salt. Sea salt may not sound very frugal but there are some things that really are worth the extra expense. If you haven’t already do a taste comparison between iodized salt and sea salt and you’ll see what I mean. And if you don’t…well then we can just argue about it.

And if the appeal of having bottled salad dressing on hand it too much for you to resist, keep in mind that you can make a big enough batch to last you for a week and keep it in the fridge. Let’s put Paul Newman out of business! (Just kidding Paul.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Blueberry Picking

What’s more frugal then picking your own local blueberries in season? (To answer my own rhetorical question: growing your own.) Well we didn’t have enough room to grow them this year so we did the next best thing and picked a few pounds at Schartner’s Farm. Although we tried to get an early start by the time we got there it was getting hot so after a few pounds worth we gave up.

Although we’ll probably freeze most of them we felt we needed to make at least one dessert with the fresh blueberries so we decided to make a tart. The discussion of custard began…and it was immediately vetoed. Mom didn’t want to bother and Randy said he probably wouldn’t like it anyway. So we came up with a brilliantly lazy solution: vanilla pudding! (Although we weren’t totally lazy, we didn’t get the no-cook variety). We also copped out and bought pre-made dough which we blind baked with some parchment paper and marbles to weigh it down. We then filled it with the vanilla pudding which we had gussied up with some almond extract. When it had set for a couple hours in the fridge I painstakingly arranged a single layer of blueberries on top. For the glaze we heated some grape jelly (the only kind in the fridge that wasn’t moldy) to which I added a little triple sec to thin it. The glaze ended up being fairly thick so I probably could have thinned it even further but the “tart” (which rightly should probably be called a pudding pie with blue berries and jelly on top) came out very pretty! After eating some I concluded it probably didn’t need glaze at all.

Since my pictures of the pie didn't come out very's a picture of my cute kitty who keeps me company while I type my blog!

More Harvesting

Although nothing will beat the bounty that was our wheat harvest (see last post to fully understand sarcasm), we did pick several other things this week.

Snow peas: They suck. It can’t be said any other way, they have barely climbed a foot up the netting and we’ve gotten at most 10 sad little pale green peas so far this year.

Cucumbers: We got three more spiny fat little pickling cucumbers. The plants appear to be picking up steam, I counted at least a dozen little cucumbers getting started.

Squash: We picked our first squash! Although it is very cute, we are slightly disappointed. Mom is sure she bought patty pans but lo and behold we are definitely not getting any patty pans. Who knows if we should blame the greenhouse or the mom’s memory. Next year I’ll make sure she’s wearing strong glasses while selecting seedlings.

And for the grand finale….we harvested our garlic! Mom (thinks she) bought organic garlic last year at a Farmer’s Market and saved it to plant. She did that in mid November (this we’re sure of, she made notes). We made sure to pick the garlic scapes when they appeared (which we used for stir fry) and this week we decided the garlic was ready to harvest. Mom came to this conclusion because some of the stalks had fallen over (and the bottom halfish was brown while the top was still green) and once they fall over they can get mold. So we pulled up about 8 bulbs ranging from medium sized to smallish. We hung them up in a shady spot on the porch to cure so we can save them and use them this fall. Since we go through so much garlic in our cooking we’re thinking of expanding our crop next year.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wheat Harvest

This week we harvested our wheat. It took all eight siblings and maybe a few cousins from the farm down the road. Afterwards we raised a barn and milked our herd of cows. Well not really, actually mom did it by herself and it probably only took a few minutes. Our wheat acreage is actually only about 4x10 feet. (Mom refers to it as the back 40, which is not technically a lie since it's 40 square feet not 40 acres.) Mom planted it as an experiment, to see if growing grain is actually possible in Rhode Island. Although we have quite a few good local farms that grow a wide variety of produce, there is virtually no grain being grown in Rhode Island (except for corn for jonnycakes, and we know how often those get eaten). What once was probably rolling fields of grain is now either housing developments or even worse, turf fields.

So mom tried two varieties which she ordered online from Bountiful Gardens ( Although she planted both an ancient variety of Emmer wheat and a modern type of Hard Red Spring Wheat in early April, the Hard Red was the one that was ready, or as ready as it was going to get. Although it had changed from green to gold, the seeds were not yet all hard (which is supposedly when its time to harvest). But our cat Toaster (blame me for the name, but don’t ask me why) had other plans for the wheat. In his defense what is now mom’s (ugly) wheat field was up until recently my (lovely) grass garden. Our cats had become accustomed to using the grass garden as their own personal jungle in which to hide so they could pounce on whomever was passing by. So when the wheat got nice and tall and dry and rustly, Toaster assumed it was meant for him to pounce on, and he did, and knocked it all over. So to make a boring story short mom had to pick the wheat before it was totally ripe, but we’ll see how it comes out.

(That is the destoyer of wheat, a.k.a. Toaster, in the foreground)

It might make a muffin or two.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Like Buttah

Sunday morning everyone felt lazy and Randy was sick so we had rye toast with strawberry jam and butter for breakfast. What could have been a boring breakfast was actually quite indulgent because both the butter and jam were homemade.

The butter was actually an afterthought in order to use up extra whipping cream. We had bought the cream to make our own whipped cream (to go with fresh picked strawberries) as an activity to entertain Randy’s ten year old sister. We didn’t really want more whipped cream so we decided to use the leftovers to make butter. Mom claimed she had made butter in elementary school by simply placing the whipping cream in a jar and shaking. So we shook…and shook…and shook some more. Dad was dubious after the cream got frothy and stayed that way for awhile but all of a sudden, it changed. It went from being a thick foam that coated the sides to beginning to clump. This is how you know the butter is ready, when it begins to clump and the liquid separates out.

After this we poured off the liquid (butter milk, which dad drank after some refrigeration) and put the butter in the fridge. Mom then had to squish and rinse it and now we have fresh unsalted butter! Although it may have been much more labor intensive, and probably more expensive then store bought butter, it was frugal in the sense that we used up the leftover cream.

The jam was a whole other fiasco. A local farm has pick-your-own strawberries so on a recent Sunday we ventured down there early (actually it was the first day of picking, the absolute best time to go, before they get picked over) and picked about five pounds of berries.

When we got home I began shucking the strawberries, and continued to do so for quite awhile. We decided to can four 8 oz. jars of jam. We began to cook the strawberries with the sugar, and we cooked it, and cooked it some more. We had a nice heavy bottomed pot so sticking wasn’t an issue but it still wasn’t passing any of the “gel tests.” (We were attempting all three the book recommended: temperature, the drip test and the plate test.)

Finally we just said f*** it and put it in the sanitized jars and sealed them and processed them. The next day when we checked them all the seals had worked perfectly. Although the jam didn’t quite gel it ended up thick enough that it works fine as jam. I think our mistake was not using as many under ripe berries as the recipe called for. Do not underestimate the importance of the under ripe berries! We ended up freezing most of the other strawberries which will probably end up being used in smoothies.

Despite our slightly ungelled jam, the breakfast was still delicious, although in the future, I think I’m going to make mom get up at 5 in the morning so we can have fresh baked bread too.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Toast Post

In keeping with the theme of frugality I’ve decided to share with you one of my family’s tricks, despite its possibly dire consequences for the cracker industry. Instead of throwing away old stale loaves of French bread (or composting them, although we occasionally do if mold has begun to colonize) we make it into Melba toast.

All you have to is take several day old bread (we’ve found that four or five day old French bread works, but we know for a fact it is baked the day we buy it, this may vary for you) and slice it very thin. We put it on a cookie tray and put it in a very very very low oven for as long as it takes to dry out and become golden. (And if you are as forgetful as my dad you may discover that it is fine even if left over night.) Although this may seem incredibly simple it is a great way to salvage otherwise inedible bread and it is actually better then most crackers (unless you happen to make your crackers fresh also, in which case they may be better).

Although I’m not sure this procedure is exactly in keeping with Escoffier’s original version (he is said to have invented it for the same Australian opera singer which peach melba is named after), it is close enough that when you do it, think not of it as an exercise in frugality, but in keeping with a fine tradition of French cooking.

P.S. In the future our moldy bread may not even make it as far as the compost heap, mom keeps threatening to save it as an emergency antibiotic, just in case the economy collapses and infrastructure breaks down (but remember: do not eat it!).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

First Cucumber

Tuesday we harvested our first cucumber!

It’s an heirloom variety of pickling cucumber and mom discovered why some cucumbers are advertised as “spineless” because ours certainly isn’t. After I knocked the spines off with the back of a knife, and it had been cut into four equitable portions, we sampled the first real fruits of this year’s labors (with the exception of some herbs and puny snow peas). The flavor was…surprisingly blah. The flesh was cucumbery (which would sound silly if it wasn’t for the flavorless cucumber shaped vegetables they are passing off at supermarkets) but the skin was bitter. We’ll also probably never have enough at any one time to pickle them so it’s off to a local farm to buy our pickling cucumbers this year. Despite this our excitement was such that the cucumber got its own half hour photo shoot so that we would have lasting evidence of its fleeting existence.

We actually planted cucumbers out of desperation for something not in the nightshade family to rotate in our containers (which have previously had mostly tomatoes). Although we have a generous half acre most of it is shaded by oak trees that we are too poor to cut down. Ironically the only part of the property that remains sunny is our driveway. So our only real option was to start a container garden next to the garage. The containers include a few new ones but most either came with the property, were donations from neighbors, or are fairly old. The new ones are usually the ones we have to add every year to avoid repeating nightshades in the same pot more than once in three years. This year we have cucumbers, squash, carrots, one lone cranberry bean, rosemary, green and purple basil, parsley, Thai chili peppers, tomatoes, chives, radishes and salad greens.

Although everything is doing fairly well, one mystery remains: why is my purple basil turning green? Is it some sort of trick so they can get you to pay extra for the fancy purple basil, only to find out when you get home that it was really green basil in disguise? It may sound trivial but I really only bought this variety for the color, I have a recipe for a green Thai curry soup that calls for purple basil as a garnish and it looks just amazing (at least in the cookbook, I’ve yet to try it, that’s why I had to buy the purple basil). So, does anyone know why this happens? I’ve heard the same complaint from other people, is it too much sun or too little? Does it need more water? Or perhaps a monetary sacrifice to the gods of the local nursery to reverse the curse placed upon it when I bought it ($4.25 for a freaking plant, you’d think it would at least stay the same color!)?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

An Introduction

Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a card holding Swamp Yankee (see below for a stab at a definition of a Swamp Yankee). Instead I am a convert to this way of life and if I am a convert then my mom is downright born again. She started out about as far away from Swamp Yankee as you could get, a Brooklyn Jew who could be found running around barefoot in the Village in the 60’s. I would guess her conversion to a more rural mind frame began around the time she met my father, a country boy from Missouri whose first indoor bathroom was acquired when he was twelve. Although they didn’t move to the southern part of Rhode Island until I was four, we quickly adjusted to the local culture which is…

My attempt to define a Swamp Yankee:
Swamp Yankees are the hillbillies of Southern New England (Rhode Island mostly). According to Wikipedia: “The term ‘Yankee’ connotes urbane industriousness, while the term ‘Swamp Yankee’ signifies a more countrified, stubborn, independent and less refined subtype” ( This pretty well sums up the essence of a true Swamp Yankee: self-reliant yet stubborn. And I use this term in only the most positive manner, as I think most of these qualities are admirable. But unfortunately I will never be a true Swamp Yankee, for as I understand it, to qualify your family must go back a few generations in the area, and we are only recent transplants. But despite this, we will still strive to be the best damn fake Swamp Yankees that we can be, by being as self-reliant as is possible for poor folks. But you may ask: “Doesn’t being poor necessitate more self-reliance?” One would think so but somehow things seemed to have worked out so that doing things for yourself is actually MORE expensive (now why would this be?) Take sewing for example, if you can even find fabric locally (we have to drive pretty far to even find a decent selection), it will probably cost you more to buy the fabric to make yourself an item of clothing then it actually would to go to your local retail giant and buy it. So if this rings true of your experience, read on for more ADVENTURES IN THE LAND OF SWAMP YANKEES!!!