Stacking Functions Garden

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Adam’s INDOOR bike shop

With highs in the single digits and an unheated garage, Adam has officially moved his little bike operation into the laundry room:

There on top of the washer (next to the beer) is his brand-new bike repair toolkit, which he purchased with his Christmas money.  He’s building out a single speed fixie for my friend Rand out of an old Raleigh frame that he bought on Craigslist.  Now if I can just get him to build me a cargo bike

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Running home from work (literally)

Since the roads became treacherous the second week of December, I’ve been taking the bus instead of biking.  I had a nice long biking season for 2009 — approximately April 1 through almost mid-December.  I was only a couple weeks shy of my yearly goal of biking for at least 9 months.  Well, there’s always 2010…

In the meantime, I am desperately trying to stave off winter weight gain.  I was bad over the holidays: I can’t seem to control myself when faced with peanut butter balls, almond bark, and peanut brittle.

I decided that I needed to try running more often — I had been barely maintaining a minimum running schedule of short, easy jogs about once per week.  Since I’m very busy, why not combine exercise and transportation and run home from work a couple nights a week?  It only takes about 20-25 minutes longer than taking the bus (sometimes less).  I run the same route that I bike, through the neighborhoods of south Minneapolis.  It’s a little over 4 miles, total.

I’ve run it a few times now, and it’s slowly growing on me. Here I am after arriving safely home tonight.  It was a balmy 21 degrees F when I left work, so I wore a headband instead of a winter hat.  Note the frost covering the headband (it was black when I left work).

The only bad part about running in Minnesota in the winter is the footing.  It is absolutely awful.  Name the crappy road/sidewalk condition, and I run on it: slush, glare ice, packed snow, rough ice, rough ice with packed snow on top, huge piles of snow blocking the sidewalk, you name it.

Last week I wiped out, and even though I was unhurt, decided that I needed to invest in a pair of these:

We bought Adam’s dad a pair of YakTrax a few years ago for ice fishing, and he liked them.  So, I bought myself a pair and put them on my running shoes.  It was a marked improvement.  I’m not going to say it was as good as running on dry pavement, but it was definitely less scary than my runs of the last few weeks.

And the weather finally warmed up!  My first few runs were in negative windchills, and that aspect was challenging.  I really had to bundle up.  Thank goodness my house is south of downtown, so the winter wind is at my back the whole way.

I’ve found that I really dislike carrying a backpack while running — maybe I’m just not in good enough shape.  Whatever the reason, I’ve usually just been leaving my stuff at work and running only with my cellphone and keys.  Then I take it all home on the bus the next day.

The best part: I save a $2.50 bus fare every time I run!  That could add up, over time…

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This weekend

Why does it seem like we had a super busy weekend, but really we didn’t do much of anything?  Oh well, with my Master Gardener class starting Tuesday maybe a little downtime was a good thing.  I had the opportunity to cook supper for the family tonight, and here’s what I made:

The bread: Vollkornbrot (German for “whole kernel bread”), recipe from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.  It was pretty good, but not quite as good as the “master recipe” bread we made last week from the book.  I tried soaking all the ingredients for a solid 6 hours before I added the yeast, in order to give it the Nourishing Traditions treatment.  Result: it was hard to work the yeast in, I ended up adding more liquid, and as a result the dough was very difficult to work with today.

The bread itself was quite heavy, and some of the wheat kernels were kind-of difficult to chew.  Has anyone ever had authentic German Vollkornbrot?  Is it supposed to be this heavy?  Maybe.  I liked it, but wouldn’t want it every day.  This might be a dough that gets better after it sits for a couple of days.  (Confused?  See my “Healthy Bread” synopsis.)

Then there’s the soup: Smoked Haddock Chowder (from a restaurant called The Spotted Pig in NYC).  Jason Kottke linked to it from his blog, and was so excited about the recipe becoming available that I couldn’t help it; I had to try it.  It took a long time to make — especially to dice all those vegetables, but boy howdy.  This is, hands-down, the most delicious thing I’ve ever cooked.  The only thing I did different from the recipe was that I couldn’t find smoked haddock and used smoked whitefish instead.  Wow.  It wasn’t super difficult, but it took a kitchen novice like myself a long time.  So worth it.  Next time I need to impress someone, I will whip this recipe out.  Highly recommended.


The grocery budget, part 2

Last night I opened up about how much I actually spend on groceries.  I feel a little weird about posting that for the whole world to see, honestly.  We Minnesotans aren’t exactly comfortable talking about money.  But we can’t sit around assuming that groceries aren’t a huge part of our monthly and yearly budget.  They are, and that’s why so many people cut corners on grocery costs.  But how do you cut corners without sacrificing health?  Without sacrificing environmental stewardship?

Here’s how:

That’s right, this post is going to be a loving ode to Ye Olde Bulk Section.  (The picture above is of  Seward Co-op’s bulk section, where I get most of my groceries.)  Here are just some reasons you should acquaint yourself with the bulk section:

1. Buy only as much as you need and save money.

2. You won’t pay for all the packaging with normal grocery items — and you won’t have to throw all that packaging away.

3. If you happen to live in or near at least a college-size city, there’s a good chance that it will have a natural foods co-op.  If so, you’re in luck:  co-ops have awesome bulk sections, with lots of unusual and specialty grains.

Shopping this way is not without its challenges.  The first:  come to the grocery store prepared.

Sometimes it takes me at least a solid 30 minutes to write out my grocery list and find a container for each bulk item I need.  But it’s quick work putting everything away.  We do returnable glass bottles for milk, as well.  I also bring a funnel along to make it easier to get the grains into my jars.  Here’s the bulk stuff from a typical trip:

(And my ever-present cup of coffee…)  When I first started using the bulk section, I just used the plastic bags that they make available.  But then those plastic bags started piling up at home, and they weren’t really a size I could use for anything else.  Also, if I bought (for example) flour, I would have to transfer it to a different container at home anyway.  Why not save the step and just bring the container?  I have a whole basket of containers set aside for grocery shopping.  Some are glass, some are plastic, and they are all different shapes and sizes.  The ones with the orange lids are actually from Seward Co-op; I have a collection of 9 or 10 that I keep re-using for liquid items.

If you live in south Minneapolis, the Seward Co-op is really a shining star of bulk section shopping.  Really, the co-op inspired me to shop this way.  They have things you’d expect, like grains, nuts, flours, and cereals, but then they also have cooking oils, maple syrup, honey, grind-your-own peanut and almond butter, and even various liquid soaps.  Good stuff.  Much of it is local, and all of it is substantially cheaper than what you’ll find pre-packaged on the shelves.

Of course, you have to be a list-maker in order to shop this way.  So if you don’t currently make a grocery list, that would be a good place to start.  My mind is so befuddled since I had kids, that if I don’t have a list I just stand there and stare off into space.

Confused yet? Here’s a 5-step plan to buying healthier foods at the grocery store, and saving money and helping the environment at the same time:

1. Take stock of your pantry and fridge and note what you need.  Make your list, planning at least a couple meals and stocking basics so you can come up with stuff on the fly.  (Bittman has a really great list in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.)

2. Note which things you can get in the bulk section of your local grocery store (for the love of God, choose a grocery store that has a decent bulk section), and find a suitable container in your house for each bulk item.  Doesn’t have to be anything fancy — you could even raid your recycling bins (I have).

3. Pack everything up in re-usable grocery bags and head off to the store.  Many stores will give you a $.10-$.50 discount for each bag.  Hey, it adds up!  Also, go at a time of day when you don’t have to rush.

4. In the bulk section, weigh each container and note the container weight on one of those sticky notes they provide.  Fill them up, and you’re good to go.

Here’s my pantry; I’m not one bit ashamed to show you:

Hey, I’ve got two boxes of cereal and some graham crackers up there!  (Shame on me!)  That little “irish oatmeal” tin is one of my favorite bulk refills.  I think I originally paid over $5 for that little tin of steel-cut oats.  Now I just refill it in the bulk section and it usually costs a little under $2.  (And the oats are local, rather than shipped here from Ireland.  Not that I have anything against Irish oats.)

Finally, I want to note that since I have started shopping this way I have noticed a substantial decrease in the amount of garbage and recycling items we create in this house.  REDUCE?  Check.  Much easier than recycling, in my opinion.

Part I | 2010-11 grocery budget


Charging by the weight for garbage

I forgot to post this until today, from Sunday’s Star Tribune:  a new waste disposal company that uses smaller trucks (which get better gas mileage) and charges for garbage by the pound!  I love this concept.  Hoping Minneapolis thinks about this in the future.  Here’s the story by reporter Laurie Blake.

For you out-of-staters: in St. Paul and some of the Twin Cities suburbs, garbage is handled by independent contractors, and residents must choose which company they want to use to haul away their garbage.  This is supposed to reduce government intrustion in peoples’ lives, save money, etc. ad nauseum.  Here in Minneapolis, the city contracts with one waste disposal company, and residents don’t have a choice.  Which way is better?  That’s a good question.

Neither the independent contractors nor the cities are charging by weight, though, and I’d love to see that change.  Saving money is a great incentive.


The grocery budget, part 1

About a year ago, I was watching a slide show at work about Twin Cities demographics.  One statistic that got me thinking: apparently, an average family of 4 in the Twin Cities area spends around $5,000 a year on groceries.  My hunch was that my family spends more than that.  I was right.

I added up all of 2008, but then decided I needed more data, so I waited until the end of 2009 to do my full calculations.  And here’s what I came up with (click to enlarge):

Grocery chart

Total grocery expenditure, 2008: $7,661
Total grocery expenditure, 2009: $7,609
Average for both years: around $640 a month

What does this data tell me about my grocery budget over the last two years?  Mid-2008 was when I started trying to be thriftier at the grocery store — this coincided with our kids turning 1 and transitioning from formula/breastmilk to solid foods (they are twins).  With all the efforts we’ve undertaken: gardening, making foods from scratch, etc., I expected to see at least a slight reduction for 2009.  Well, the verdict is in and I spent about $50 less on groceries in 2009 than in 2008.  WOW!  All that effort… for $50!  Hmm.  OK, I’m going to embark on a Making Myself Feel Better Exercise.

Feel better points:

1. I hit $800 a month several times in 2008, including 4 months in a row.  In 2009, that only happened one time.

2. For 2009, the total amount also includes $300 that we invested in a CSA and $200 that we spent on 1/4 bison that we split with Adam’s brother.  We still have some bison left in the freezer.

3. We have two growing kids, and our food bill hasn’t gone up (yet).

4. We ate healthier this year than we ever have, and really well: it’s not like we were huddling around cans of soup all year.  We ate tons of fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and meat and milk from grass-fed animals.  I can’t even imagine how much all those fresh, free raspberries that we picked in our yard would have cost in the store.

5. How much does an average family of 4 spend on restaurant food per month?  This is one area where we’d be shining stars.  I have not tracked our restaurant expenses, but I would guess that we come out around $50 or less every month, on average.

7. Adam just looked over my shoulder and he thinks my math is a little fuzzy, that we actually spent a bit less every month in 2009 than I calculated.  I had assumed $50 per month on impulse-buy groceries at Target, and Adam said the actual amount was likely lower than that, most of the time.

OK, I feel better.  But I am going to try and post a real reduction for 2010.

Question: does that $5,000 per year figure sound right to you?  If so, then I have spent about 1.5 times the average, despite my efforts.  I am not sure how old that data is that I saw, but I assume it’s from the last couple years.

Go to part II