Welcoming the Long Winter

book_pages_reading_fireplace_flame-892494.jpg!dDecember was busy. Somehow we fit all the activities and travel preparations for the holidays into our usual routines, and that time had to come from somewhere. I know that one place I skimped was meals. No one complained, and maybe they didn’t even notice, but I did… I noticed in my added few pounds, in my craving for green vegetables, and in having to dispose of a few things from the refrigerator, which is never necessary when I’m on top of things.

But all of that busy-ness is long over now.. and I’ve even undecorated. The winter months are upon us, and it is likely that this weekend’s thaw will be the last until April. It’s time for those braising, roasting, and simmering recipes that heat and scent the house. Since we returned from our holiday travel, I’ve cooked more than I did for most of December, when I nearly emptied our freezer and pantry. The freezer is again full and our weeknights should be easy for a few weeks.

I spent about 4 hours cooking this weekend and turned out a large loaf of bread, a quart of homemade yogurt, pasta with broccoli pesto and chickpeas for lunches, raw vegetables for this week’s lunches, and a cabbage-potato dish. Our Sunday dinner was the rajma recipe from Merra Sodha’s Fresh India, and it was delicious. There’s another meal of that in the freezer, along with chili, lasagna, black bean soup, scalloped potatoes, and various cooked beans and grains awaiting some type of quick preparation. I am feeling caught up.

The biggest bonus of cooking ahead is the time to focus on other projects. And sometimes, especially this dark and cold time of year, a project is as simple as a good book.

Thrifty Thursday

a_traditional_cottage_garden_-_geograph.org.uk_-_829164
Evelyn Simak / A traditional cottage garden (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most days are thrifty at Cottage Berg, so I admit succumbing to alliteration, but I do find regular reminders to be helpful when working toward a goal. Today’s thrifty habit is Meals that Clean Out the Fridge (or Freezer). Having learned to make use of random bits and scraps of leftovers has been a key skill in reducing food waste in our house. They are all either refrigerated or frozen in containers, and about once weekly I make a meal that can use up random vegetables, legumes, potatoes, or meat.

This is probably where casseroles originated. My mom never really made them, so the first time I saw a recipe I was stunned at all the work involved. But when everything is already made and leftover from another meal, they are very cost- and time-efficient. And that is true of most of these meals. Most are adaptable to use either cooked (neutrally seasoned) or raw vegetables; cooked vegetables should be added just in time to heat through.

Sometimes little containers get shoved to the back of the freezer or fridge.  I really hate to throw out food or clean moldy containers, so nearly emptying the fridge between shopping excursions is a good habit, and if I don’t have an idea for how to use something within a few days, I move it into the freezer.  The things that get lost in the deep freeze may become dessicated over time, but are still perfectly useful in a soup or chili.

Examples of perfect vehicles for random leftovers:

Frittata or omelet
Fried rice or bibbim bap
Soups (minestrone, for instance)
Enchiladas
Chili
Stir fry
Flatbread with toppings, or filled crepes

And then there’s always the Leftover Buffet.

Tonight I drive the carpool, and I need a quick meal to cook when I get home that will use up about two cups of cooked cabbage.  Soup is a good candidate, but I won’t have time to cook it after I get home, and am gone far too long to consider the slow cooker (after about 6 hours, in my opinion, it just tastes overcooked).   Plus, it’s Thursday night, the Night of Greatest Fatigue (I completely understand why Thursday night was meltdown night in Mari’s first years of school).  So, it will be simple: an unfilled omelet with green onions and Jarlsburg cheese, with leftover roasted potatoes and cabbage.  And then I will don my pajamas and read with a purring cat.

How have you reduced food waste? What are your weeknight go-to meals?

Frugal Thinking

forest-path-238887_1920iThe sun is poking through the clouds, shining with unusual intensity for a cloudy day directly into our dining room. The house is quiet – only the animals and I are awake. I am sitting at the keyboard, thinking. This is what I wanted more of when I quit that crazy job. Time to just think. It’s been a year now, and that anniversary as well as the lack of padding in our bank account has made me ponder my choice, which still feels right. I’ve never had a job that felt like such a good match to my skills, and because there is room to grow in the organization, I believe that our income situation will improve in time. In the meantime, Mari’s only home for two more years. I want to make those happy years, not two more years with a stressed-to-the-limit mom.

I met my friend Mary to walk and talk yesterday, and our conversation turned to how I have more time now. I definitely do, though its source is not really obvious. One hour of daily work time saving has been given to sleep that I didn’t know I was missing until I felt the resulting change. I am not spending hours each week on a job hunt, as I was for much of 2018. Overall, it’s hard to say whether reduced stress or the changed work environment is the most significant factor.

My previous job required “deep work” for the entire day.  Every task, every day, required problem solving in a different situation, resolution in a timely manner, with close to zero tolerance for error. But all day long I was interrupted by someone in person or by phone, text, or page at least every 15 minutes. Sometimes it was something that could have been asked in an email. Sometimes it was production staff asking me when I would be done using some equipment (I managed to never say, “Sooner if you stop interrupting me.”). Sometimes it was actually something urgent. Every day when I came home, my brain was exhausted – and then I would still continue to receive texts and emails and ponder unsolved issues, often in the middle of the night. My coworkers were similarly stressed, which multiplied the effect.

Now, I am still interrupted for most of the day, but I have at least an hour every morning with close to zero interruptions. The deep work I do comes in concentrated bursts, and there is no manufacturing urgency. When I leave for the day, I am done. I don’t have to make tentative weekend plans around the possibility of being called in to fix something. I have mental energy left in the evenings to learn new things, to begin creative projects, and, most importantly, to be available to my family in more than robot mode.

It is still difficult to catch up with friends due to everyone’s different schedules and time demands, but when I do, I can to settle in and enjoy the time, rather than being stressed about what I’m not getting done. Yesterday, Mary and I walked for an hour on a day with weather that can only be described as perfect (yes, in January!). Both the outdoor time in the sunshine and the discussion were therapeutic.

So, life is very good, but there is some threat of financial strain. To minimize that I will be renewing my focus on frugality, continuing to seek ways of saving on a regular basis. My budgeting approach is somewhat casual except for one rule, which covers just about everything: don’t spend if it’s not necessary or if it’s not in line with family priorities. (I have a formal budget in a spreadsheet, but I don’t look at it very often… it helps that I have a strong memory for numbers.) Our default when something is necessary is to first consider if something else can be substituted or repurposed, which results in many fun creative experiments and a lot of learning. I was considering some sort of formal budget challenge, but after reviewing expenses from the past year, think that I would rather just focus on that one rule, and allow that energy to go to new learning instead.

Is frugality part of your simple living path?
What tools do you use to maintain a frugal lifestyle when there are so many anti-frugal influences every day?

Turning the Calendar: Housekeeping

The_Ladies'_home_journal_(1948)_(14764671721)
We’ve been seeking speed, convenience, and savings for at least 130 years, according to this 1889 advertisement from Ladies’ Home Journal.  Granted, laundry at that time was an overwhelming task.  How is it that with all modern conveniences, we’re still time-starved? 

…because ‘housekeeping’ sounds ever much more pleasant than ‘chores!’

I cleaned every area of the house last summer, and saw how much neglect had occurred in the previous 3 years when I was overwhelmed by my job. We did the necessary cleaning (approximately) every week, and urgencies as they occurred, but things like the laundry room, a dusty place due to cat litter boxes, and various closets were neglected. I was shocked to see that I could easily clean measurable dust from the ceiling fans every month. The long-lasting furnace filter was somewhat beyond its life. Clearly, a system was needed.

Over the years we’ve had various methods of keeping track of household chores. Long ago, a spreadsheet listed weekly chores for Thom and myself. After recovering from the haze of having a youngster, I created a weekly rotating index card system that listed chores in time segments that were easily tackled with a toddler.  When Mari was older,  I hosted an informal weekly gathering, when friends could stop by for soup, crafting, and conversation, and had an unusually tidy home by our standards for a year or two. Now, visitors or guests still result in the cleanest house… although a close second is my birthday, when my gift is for Thom and Mari to clean while I relax. Mari has had regular chores since the age of 3, a list that increases when school’s out. But in general,  we’ve been winging the majority of the house upkeep and cleaning, getting things done when we get to it, aside from the obvious chores such as vacuuming, bathrooms, kitchen cleaning, laundry.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I prefer a paper planner for week-to-week notes, but recurring events, such as birthdays, flu shots, and real estate tax payments, I add to my online calendar once with an email reminder. So this is what I’m trying with these household tasks. I made a list of how often various things needed to be done (skipping the weekly chores as we have those under control), and added them to my calendar with the appropriate recurrence, trying to put them on different weekends of each month. These are tasks such as cleaning the outside dryer vent, changing the aquarium water, and decluttering particular rooms, cabinets, and closets. Yes, and cleaning the ceiling fans and light fixtures.

I know I’m not solving a grand problem here; neither is it my intention to maintain an immaculate house.  I’m looking for the good enough solution: a clean, functional, and presentable home with a reduced decision load for my brain by having the computer tell me when things need to be done. The advantage of the email reminder is that it stays visible until I delete it, as opposed to the fleeting notification.  I’ve tried a few list-keeping apps, but generally do not want another app to keep track of.  Do you have a system for regular, but not frequent, household chores?

Weeknight Meals, December

squash2
A weekend dinner!

Some years ago I witnessed this exchange between two acquaintances, as we all picked up our children at 6PM from an activity:

“I guess now I have to decide what’s for dinner.”

“I’m going to get a pizza on the way home.  We had Subway last night.”

This really surprised me, because, in those years that I worked only about quarter-time, I saw DIY tasks, particularly cooking, which has the potential to save a huge amount of money, as part of my contribution to our living on one salary.  I thought that everyone would have started a crock pot dinner or have a plan for something quick to cook on their arrival home (“scrambled eggs and fruit” is one of my last-minute plans… but it beats fast food!).  Since returning to full-time (or more) work, I’ve honed my previous routines to save time.  Continue reading “Weeknight Meals, December”

The Joy of Thrifting

My first-ever thrift shop purchase was an old metal sewing machine which I used it for about 5 years until it failed – ironically, for the same reason I hadn’t wanted a newer machine – some interior plastic part that couldn’t be replaced.

When we moved to Tucson, we discovered reuse shops of all types (used book stores aside – those I discovered decades ago!). Continue reading “The Joy of Thrifting”

Vintage Recipe: Butter Star Cookies

IMG_20181211_095713When I was a college sophomore in my first apartment, I asked my mom for a cookbook. I hadn’t yet mastered cooking rice, and I just wanted some simple instructions. She gave me my great grandmother’s 1932 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, a cloth-bound binder with pages that had aged as gently as Louise, with her beautiful script on the back pages. I looked through it… and at some point returned it to Mom’s shelf. I was moving a lot and didn’t want things I wouldn’t use, and it wasn’t the book I needed at that time. I eventually figured out how to cook rice and a lot of other things, mostly without instructions.

Years later, I became fascinated with old cookbooks, Continue reading “Vintage Recipe: Butter Star Cookies”