Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's all fun and games...

... until someone flips the 4-wheeler!

Some egos were bruised during the making of this adventure.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lessons from the Larder

As we approach our second anniversary living out here in the middle of nowhere, without refrigeration and easy access to supermarkets, I thought I'd pass on a few things we've learned about our food storage planning.

Dehydrated food saves a lot of space and weight -- BUT -- it takes a lot of time and water to rehydrate. The beans and veggies are the worst*, so you really do have to plan ahead much further than you'd expect to make them even vaguely chewable. If you don't get them rehydrated and cooked down enough they will seriously mess up your guts! Dried grains and fruit are much less of a problem. Dried meat, unless it's jerky or meant to be eaten in its "dry" state (like salami), is also a bit of a problem and never really gets the right texture back... this can really upset your tummy.

* However, dried beans and veggies are AWESOME if you grind them down into powder/flour to add to recipes. They rehydrate almost instantly and add a lot of flavor and extra nutrients to just about any dish.

My tummy does NOT like canned meat chunks AT ALL. Maybe it's the double (or triple) cooking that's the problem, but the only way I can seem to tolerate canned meats is if its been ground down to a paste (like the Underwood sandwich spreads) or I mix in a whole lot of mayo to make it a cold salad (chicken & tuna). So, it looks like we're going to have to adjust our pantry inventory to have most of the meat frozen except for canned meals that contain meat (like chili, soups & stew) or spreads.

Canned beans are gazillion times easier to cook with than dried beans, and they don't bother my tummy as much. So I think what I'll have to do is pre-cook and can a bunch plain/seasoned beans & bean dishes (chili, baked beans, refried beans, pea soup) from the dried bean stores every few months and keep those in the pantry ready-to-eat. I think we'll eat more beans, and suffer less, that way while still keeping the long shelf life and making the most of our space. Sure, we're essentially storing water... but we have to do that anyway, better it's in the food making it edible than just sitting in a jug where it will take hours and hours to make that food edible were it dehydrated.

Some stuff keeps so long in it's natural state, that keeping large canned or dried stores is nearly pointless. Potatoes*, onions, garlic and cabbage come to the top of the list. I'm going to drastically reduce the amount of those things that I can or dehydrate, maybe only 3 months worth instead of a year, and invest in some good storage bins for properly keeping the whole food usable instead. Even if we don't get the garden in, a bulk bag of potatoes or onions can easily keep for 3-6 months between grocery trips.

*However, dried potatoes do have their uses! First & foremost... if you blanch, then dehydrate your potatoes and grind them into a flour/meat you have your own instant mashed potatoes, can add them to breads as a flour, and use them in soups & stews as a thickener. Also, if you slice and boil your taters until they are al dente (mostly cooked, but still a little crispy), then dehydrate them, you can make your own Better Crocker-style "box meals". Make a pre-measured sauce mix from your dry ingredients (powdered milk, cheese powder, sour cream powder), put that into an envelope or baggy, scoop some dried potato slices into a quart jar or vac-bag, put the sauce mix and preparation instructions in, and then dry-can/vac it... voila! Potatoes au gratin in a few minutes, not thought required, just add water!  Bake a thin layer of "instant" mashed potatoes on a cookie sheet and you have passable Pringles, or bake/flash fry your dried and seasoned potato slices and you have really crispy chips without a lot of grease (works with other veggies too!). And, of course, dried onion & garlic can always be ground down into a powder to use as a seasoning rather than a veg.

We go through WAY more sugar and butter than any of the calculators tell you to stock up. No, we're not eating butter and sugar sandwiches or baking lots of cookies and candies. Our climate and activity level require about twice as many calories than your typical RDA and one of the easiest ways to add calories is with sugar and fat (we eat a lot more cheese than "recommended" too). Our sugar consumption is mostly in beverages since it's easy to slam down a couple hundred instant calories in a liquid... coffee, tea and hot chocolate are all made with a healthy dose of sugar and cream/milk, and then there's powdered drink mixes (like Tang, Kool-Aid, lemonade and Gatorade) since we don't always have access to fruit juices fresh or in concentrate (have to learn to make & can them eventually). Did you know that you can make pretty decent sno-cones with real snow and a syrup made from drink mix? YUP, it's tasty!  But anyway, we had to adjust our inventory to include double or triple the amount of sugar, honey, butter, milk and cheese... while, oddly, we barely have much of the dessert/treat things like cake, frosting, pudding, gelatin, cookies & candy.

Portions become really important when you can't refrigerate your leftovers. Most canned goods come in 12-16 oz cans; which is just about right for two people in one meal... if that's the only thing we're eating. But, if you're making a recipe that calls for several ingredients (like stew), or you feel like having peas and corn, you're going to end up with way more food than two people can eat in a sitting, and probably end up with more than you want to end up eating for the next several meals until you finally finish it (or it spoils and the dog gets it). So you either need space in the freezer or plan to can the remainder. G can eat a pint/can of soup or chili or hash all by himself, I normally can only eat about a cup.... so a pint is too little and a quart is too much. All this gets to be factored in when I start cooking and canning my own stuff instead of relying on commercial canned goods. A quart of ready-meal is probably a good size, since I'm likely to come back in an hour or so to finish off that last cup (I don't have as much problem eating the same thing more than once in a day/row). We'll need to can pints of veggies we like to eat by themselves, but we're also either going to have to can 1/2 pints of them, or can up medleys in pints, so we can use them in cooking better... or I have to figure out how to sneak in that other half jar of peas into the next meal in a completely new and interesting way LOL.

In the summer, we can store all the canned foods we want in the shed since it doesn't get hot... this is awesome for canning up the garden harvest. In the winter, we can store all the frozen food we want in the shed since it never gets above zero. The problem comes in during the transition months on either end, and making sure that we have enough room in the pantry (and eventual root cellar) for all the canned goods during winter and all the frozen foods in the tiny DC freezer during the summer (or cook and can like a mad fiend before it gets warm and everything thaws!). It's a careful balancing act... but at least it means we keep our food rotated since we basically shift our entire stock twice a year!

So there are a few things we've noticed while tracking our food inventory, and hopefully it'll give you all a few things to think about with your own food storage plans. All the calculators and recommendations are just starting points, you really have to keep your own inventories and records so you understand exactly what and how your family eats, so that you can tailor an inventory and plan that works perfectly for you. While you're mulling that over, I'm going to go find out where I can safely stash 500 lbs of sugar :D

Oh yeah - forgot to mention... if you don't like something, or you don't eat a lot of something, or you have an allergy or intolerance to something, or you don't have a recipe to hide something you don't like... DON'T STORE OR PLANT IT, no matter what the recommendations are! We don't have nearly the recommended amounts of peanut products (G - allergy), or whole egg powders (G uses more powdered yolk because of white protein allergy, and I use more powdered white because of yolk sulfur intolerance), or wheat & wheat flours (I have a mild/moderate gluten intolerance so we use other grains for at least half), or soy products (G - allergy, and we both have to avoid texturized soy protein like the plague!), or chocolate products (G - allergy), and neither of us can eat mangoes or eggplant, nor do we particularly care for some of the fruits/veg/grains that are always highly recommended in most survival pantry and garden lists. If you can't or aren't going to eat it, don't waste your time, money and space on it!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bread Economics (White Bread)

Bread. It truly is the food of life, having fed the masses throughout recorded history. Hell, bread is so important to us that shortages have caused revolutions and downfalls of governments.

As part of my food planning, I started researching what it takes to make our daily loaf (ok, closer to weekly loaf since it's only the two of us, but you get the picture).

Here's what I found out, using average pricing per loaf at bulk stores and discount clubs (in Alaska):
  • Crappiest white/wheat loaf that is mostly fluff, not nutrition = $0.99
  • Medium quality white/wheat that is pretty decent nutrition = $2.50
  • High quality artisan bread = $5.00

So, to further understand this, I took this Traditional White Bread 2-loaf recipe:
  • 6 1/2 cups bread flour (rounded to 7 cups for adjustment and flouring surfaces)
  • 2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons lard/shortening, softened
  • 2 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
applied a few simple conversions:
  • 1 lb flour = 3.5 cups
  • 1 lb dry active yeast = 144 teaspoons = 64 "packets"
  • 1 lb sugar = 2 cups = 32 tablespoons
  • 1 lb salt = 2 cups = 32 tablespoons
  • 1 lb lard/shortening = 2 cups = 32 tablespoons
to determine the following are required to make 100 loaves (about two per week):
  • 100 lb flour = $40 ($20/50 lb)
  • 1.5 lb dry active yeast = $9 ($6/lb)
  • 5 lb sugar = $3.50 ($7/10 lb)
  • 3 lb salt = $0.94 ($1.25/4 lb)
  • 5 lb lard/shortening = $8 (shortening $9/6 lb) 
So, 100 loaves of bread for $61.45 -- that's just shy of 62 cents per loaf.

That's right folks - you can eat fresh-baked bread all year, for a little less than 2/3 the price of the crappiest discount supermarket loaves. You could save even more if you bought more of the ingredient in larger bulk sizes!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ridin' around on my Rock Bus, pickin' up chicks and getting some Tang

I see that captured your attention... It's not as glamorous as it sounds.

This was the trip to Fairbanks to return the blower and get more supplies.

So the Rock Bus was the Manley Village Express bus, Ken Smith our neighbor was the driver and fortunately (or in reality not that surprisingly) we had to hit the same stores, seemed like the right idea was to share it for picking up our stuff and dropping off the blower. In today's gas prices too, it's a damn sight cheaper using the truck. So since I was the only passenger it was christened the "Rock Bus", we took the blower back to Spenards who cut us a sweet deal on the rental came out at $240 for about 13 days, which is about $500 less than their posted rental rates, mind you this was a piece of crap blower, and looked ready for the junkyard but it did the job.

So that was yesterday, today first thing was to go to Lowes, who because they were incapable of getting us the blower we needed had agreed to reimburse us the difference between their rental charge and Spenards charge or to put it $30/day in rental costs. Ok so we arrived, with our $240 in receipts for our 13 days... Chatted with the Manager who asked how we wanted it, store credit would be just fine, since I was planning on getting a bunch of drywall supplies. So Ken the manager at Lowes handed this off to a cashier, to credit us with $150, hmm... not good before we could grab him he was off, so we asked the cashier exactly how much she was crediting $150, we explained the deal as worked out previously $30/day, but for 7 days which was the standard rate since Lowes told us when we bought it that we'd get a day for every 20 bags, but that normally for Bush orders we'd have it for as long as we needed it for free. We had 146 bags or 7 free days... at $30/day that's $210, not $150. Is this making sense...?

So Ken the manager comes back and says "No we agreed to $150 store credit" I immediately hit back with nope, we agreed store credit, not the total, I'd take $150 cash, but not in store credit. He then developed a strange pulse in his temple and tried to shout me down claiming I'd agreed (which I patently didn't since we didn't even discuss a total). So looking him square in the eye I relayed the following information.

"I'll take back my receipts, thank you very much, and you can keep your in store credit, and you can rely on the fact that I will NEVER spend another dime in this chain."

So we chose to get the supplies from Home Depot, not Blowes. Which was a good deal for Home Depot, since Ken (the neighbor and bus driver) needs to order supplies for an extension he's doing in Manley, and they're getting that business (about $11,000 in materials), when we checked out, we suggested that they might want to send a "thank you" note to Lowes. Now not that I'm suggesting this to anyone else, but if anyone else would feel aggrieved in this situation, then perhaps you might want to consider giving Lowes a wide berth in future, often there are alternatives that are more local in Fairbanks for instance there's Spenards (who did us a good deal) and Northland Wood (who did us a good deal too), and Home Depot who are not a bunch of assholes.

Now interestingly our friend Rose from Fairbanks used to work at that very store, and she cannot remember ever charging anyone rental for an insulation blower that had previously bought that insulation, regardless of the length of time that they'd kept the blower.

Anyway so I've explained the Rock Bus!...

So what about the Chicks...

Yeah Ken picked up 5 Americana, and 5 Red Chantecler chicks, which we thought about for this year, but decided against, until we can dedicate some time to them.

And what the hell is the Tang...
Orange powdered beverage, bought at Sams Club, it just seemed to fit into the general tone of the title... And is most excellent when mixed 1 part Tang to 2 parts Country Time Lemonade, which I know is a strange chemical soup that will ultimately result in my early demise, but just tastes really good.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The ultimate cure for "all the drama"

Thought you all might appreciate this one!

Insulation - Part 2

Today we finished blowing in the downstairs walls and the floor joists. We had just enough unfrozen insulation to get that done, as well as to go back and do a little bit of touch-up fill in areas that settled after we went through and palpitated the mesh vigorously. Yes, we looked kind of funny prodding and fondling our walls, but it's the absolute best way to make sure you get dense packed in every nook and cranny. It's likely that we're stuffed so tight to the gills that we'll have to compress it a bit when we go to install the drywall.

But anyway, the insulation is all done now, and we have about 5 bags worth of damp/frozen clumps spread out on the floor in front of the wood stove that we can break up and re-fluff once it's dry again in case we need to add a little more stuffing in anywhere or insulate the dog house or something LOL.

The cabin is sooooo warm and toasty; and, for the very first time, I could walk on the floor without hearing or feeling footsteps. I'm just going to do my happy hamster dance again!!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Insulation - Part 1

OK, we've been remiss in posting for the past couple weeks because we've been getting the house ready for insulation. We ended up using house wrap on the exterior walls because you just can't work with felt paper below freezing. Of course, it was totally windy while we doing that, so I got knocked off the ladder once and G had a few panic attacks up on the ladder with the wind catching the wrap and acting like a sail, and the foot of the ladder being on ice!

Then we moved inside to attach the fiber mesh across the studs for the insulation. What a PITA! We needed about 300 linear feet (x12 feet wide) to do the house... and it came in one long continuous strip that had been FOLDED in some bizarre map-puzzle way so that it would fit in the shipping box. Hey, I'm glad that we got the stuff here, but it was nigh-on impossible to cut it to length with any semblance of straightness because we had nowhere to spread it out flat and we had to be really careful not to let it touch the stove or flue. G accidentally let it touch the kerosene heater upstairs and melted a huge hole in one of the sections for the ceiling... oops. But that's why you order 10% extra, right?! Of course, mesh-flambe wasn't as good as me whacking myself with the hammer stapler and driving a staple through my left index fingernail. Crawling around under the house like a spider in the snow and over building materials while we stapled the mesh to the bottom of the joists was also exceedingly special, even better with the wind whipping through the crawlspace at MACH 2 while it's only 10 or 20 outside.

Then we had the joy of getting up on the roof to tack down the tarp (our temp roof) really tight around the peak and pitch breaks to make sure we didn't blow our insulation out the cracks in the sheathing and out into the forest. Being up over 20 feet high on the peak of an icy, tarp-covered roof covered with 3 feet of snow is truly a life-affirming experience. Add in a few arctic gusts and you're sure to give your adrenal system a good work out. That was my job since I'm not afraid of heights, roofs, or ladders and I can bend all weird to step through the inside of the ladder standards between my own arms to get up on the peak. All I can say is thank God I have a really bony ass because, after I dislocated my hip/pulled my groin scootching along straddled on the peak, my ass bones were the only thing providing any anchor or traction on the way back to the ladder.

Today we FINALLY got to blow insulation!!!  After several clogs and jams and breaking apart bales of cellulose to find big frozen clumps, we actually managed to get the entire upstairs insulated. YAY!!! The loft is, by far, the largest and most seriously painful area to insulate. As far as surface area, the gambrel roof and the loft walls comprise half-to-3/5 of our the total insulated perimeter. Since the rafters are 12" deep and each pitch is about 8' high, we ended up blowing about 85 bags (minus the frozen bits) up there. But WOW it sure makes a huge difference! Even with only the heat from the flue and big slits cut in the windows, it was still about 70 up there; and we didn't have the stove going full-bore either. And it's sooooo quiet... whoa, seriously, it's like a sensory deprivation chamber up there now! After months of hollow banging and echos, that alone is completely amazing (says the Aspie with a major aversion to loud noises LOL).

Tomorrow we're going to blow the downstairs walls and floor joists. The walls are only 8" deep and 7' high, so they should go pretty quickly in comparison to the loft. And the floor joists, although 12" x 16'; are at least a nice straight run so we don't have to do any fancy tube work like the roof. We can just shove the nozzle in to the very end of the void and let it fill slowly as we retract it... easy smeasy.

I was really hoping to film the whole insulation blowing, but with all the dust flying around in there you couldn't see a darned thing and it just looked like really bad TV reception :( 

Oh well, I'll go back once the dust has settled and take pics for you :)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Abandoning the Wood Pile

Last fall we put up several piles of firewood for the winter. Since we'd spent so much time battling the bizarre rain while still trying to get land cleared and a cabin built, we opted to purchase seasoned split wood from a local processor and he delivered it in mounds at a nearby cabin (uninhabited) that had road access. Throughout the winter we've been taking the truck up the trail about once a week, filling it up, bring about 2/3 a cord back and then splitting it down into even smaller pieces to fit into our little tent stove.

This system worked fairly well when 1) the snow on the trail wasn't past the truck running boards, 2) we still had birch in the pile, and 3) the piles weren't buried beneath 4 feet of snow and ice.

Unfortunately, starting mid-January, the only pile we had left was a bunch of unsplit spruce rounds. These suckers were heavy and not exactly very seasoned. They were a bitch to transport (chucking frozen 50 lb logs up into a raised truck bed when it's below freezing and windy sucks), a bitch to split (even with our new electric splitter), and they honestly did not burn. Seriously, we're talking completely fire retardant wood. Even when we split it down into almost kindling size they never really made flame or produced any heat, anything larger just sat in the firebox and smoldered away to nothing. Besides leaving us cold and waiting 3+ hours for the kettle to boil, it also left us having to sweep the chimney every week because cool fires from mostly unseasoned softwoods is a recipe for creosote build-up, backdrafting and chimney fires.

A combination of things finally occurred that made us decide to abandon the 2 cords of that spruce we still have left up there...

First, we had a major backdraft in the middle of the night when it was -20F and the wind was blowing about 30 mph, and we had to go out and sweep the chimney with a friggin' headlamp while freezing our 'nads off.

Second, we got the truck buried in the snow not once but THREE times in the DRIVEWAY trying to get a load of wood that we had just spent 2 hours attempting to dig out of the snow and break free from the ice block. We had to resort to winching twice and were lucky enough to get the plow to tug us off when we finally got stuck at the top of the drive. We also lost a shovel... when digging yourself out of 4+ feet of snow, when you're done digging around the wheels and are ready to try driving again put the shovel back in the truck because there is no such thing as a safe place out of the way once the wheels start spinning!

Third, we realized that we were using two firestarter logs a day AND still having to run the propane heater just to keep it tolerable in the tent. That was getting just a little too expensive.

So, the snow may be knee deep with chest-high drifts, but the temperatures are starting to warm up... well, they're staying within 10 degrees of zero at least... so we can run the chainsaws again. Thus, we decided to abandon the bought wood and return to our deadite foraging schedule from last winter. (Deadites being 40 year old dry standing fire-kill spruce for those of you who have just joined us).

Boy! What a difference!! Deadites will burn if you just give them an angry glare and they burn really hot. Ok, they also burn really fast, so you have to control the draft carefully; but since they burn really really clean you have almost no ash or creosote so you can turn down the draft and damper without worrying about backdrafting or chimney fires. You also don't have to worry about much messy bark or sap... although you may find a few ant nests (dormant for the winter) toward the stump end.

Other than the one day when we were really sick and it was pretty cold and windy (and we thought we were going to die from oxygen deprivation because of massive head and chest snot!) foraging for deadites only takes about an hour every 3 days (or a couple minutes a day) and you get a really good thigh workout trudging through the snow drifts. We must be getting used to that, because it's a lot easier this year than it was last year :)

Figure we'll go up and get those last 2 cords of spruce rounds after break-up, split it all up and stack it to season over the summer so we can hopefully burn it next winter (or the winter after!)... and maybe even find that shovel!!

Now, if things would just pan out so we can get back to work on the cabin...