Sunday, August 26, 2007

Homebrewed Beer

I have been brewing beer since last October, and it's been a lot of fun. And the beer hasn't been half bad. In fact, of the five batches we've tasted so far, all have been praised by those who tasted them.

The work involved isn't too bad. There's work on each batch three times over the course of 3-4 weeks. I have so far been using pre-measured kits from Midwest Supplies in Minneapolis. First, on brewing day, you actually make the beer, which involves steeping grains for about an hour in a couple gallons of lukewarm water, then bringing the water to a boil, and adding malt extract and various hops. This process takes another 1-2 hours, after which the wort (beer without yeast) needs to cool down before the yeast can be added along with extra water to make about five gallons of beer. Then the beer sits for about a week in a food-grade pail after which it gets transferred to a glass carboy for conditioning. The transfer and cleanup can be done in about 45 minutes. Two weeks later the beer can be bottled. This takes 1-2 hours depending on the size of the bottles (less work with larger bottles - 5 gallons needs about 50 regular 355 ml (12 oz) bottles). Then the beer sits for 2-4 weeks before it can be enjoyed. So, it doesn't take that much effort, but you have to be patient.

The initial equipment purchase was around $100, and the ingredients for each batch will run around $30-$40 including shipping. The cost per beer is definitely higher than regular canned beer from the grocery store, but only about half the cost of specialty and imported beer, which is what it should be compared to. If all you want to do is drink Miller Light, then don't worry about making your own beer, but if you enjoy Bass, Newcastle Brown Ale, Guiness, and any other great tasting beer (especially ale), then you should give homebrewing a try.

Right now, I have two carboys in the basement. I'm hoping to be able to bottle the Fuggles brew today (we need it ready before we run out...). The other is a Holiday beer that was brewed back in June and will need another month or so before bottling. Then it will sit about 6 weeks in the bottle before it is ready in time for Halloween. It should be a Happy Holiday this year!

When you brew your own beer, there are two environmental benefits: First, you can reuse the bottles, which is far better than recycling (it takes quite a bit of energy to turn glass into glass...). Second, only the ingredients need to be transported (10-15 lbs), and in my case only from Minneapolis, as opposed to shipping both bottles (40 lbs), and water (42 lbs) from a brewery that's much farther way. Some of the styles of beer you can make with homebrew, could otherwise only be obtained from imported sources, so the transportation would add significantly to the equation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Quick Tip: Turn off the lights

Whenever you leave a room, remember to turn off the light.

(just like your Mom told you to!)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Weekend canning update

Sunday was really busy at our house! We harvested 75% of our beets - they really did well this year! And pickled enough for about 14 quarts. We should have enough for a few years now.

We also made about 30 pints of raspberry jam. Between our own consumption, selling some, and giving some away, that should last us through next year. We had about 3 pounds of berries from our own canes. Pretty good considering this was just their second season. I think we may be able to harvest 3-4 times that amount next year. The rest of the berries we picked ourselves at a nearby farm.

Sunday night we sat down to a very local meal: Grilled porkchops from Cattleana Ranch, Twice baked potatoes (own potatoes), roasted beets (obviously our own beets), and a green salad (just a few lettuce leaves weren't from our yard).

Any ideas what to do with 20+lbs of surplus beets?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Recipes in a Web 2.0 world

Flickr for Recipes?

I came across RecipeZaar the other day while trying to figure out what to do with some of the zucchini bounty we have in the refrigerator (looks like we'll make Zucchini Moussaka next week).

The site is pretty cool, it lets you collect recipes in personal cookbooks and upload your own recipes. It also has some pretty neat features when you're looking at individual recipes, such as a Nutrition Facts table for each recipe, scaling of the recipe to the number of servings you need, and conversion between US and metrics units. In addition there are features to create an entire menu and a shopping list based on the recipes you're looking at.

But what makes the site really cool when you're interested in social networks and web 2.0 sites, are the community features. Members can easily rate each recipe and describe their experience preparing and eating it. In addition, the site allows for sending messages to other members, so for each recipe, you can send a message to the person who created it. Some of the features require a premium membership ($25/year) , but the site is plenty useful with a free basic membership.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Harvest Time

Our tomatoes are finally starting to ripen (they got in a little late this year, and was probably planted a bit too close). But now they are here, and we get to have the best-tasting fresh tomatoes around!

We grow some cherry tomatoes that are really great just off the vine (or a few packed in a lunch). They will keep producing until the frost kills the plants, probably sometime in October. This year we'll have an extra abundance of these, since they are pretty good at self-sowing, and we left some of those plants instead of pulling them. Looks like we'll have plenty.

We've already harvested all the raspberries and strawberries. They were mostly frozen along with some we picked at a local farm. We also have rhubarb in the freezer. This weekend we'll be making jam. Probably quite a lot (we did pick about 40 pounds of strawberry alone!).

We should also have time to pickle the beets. If you aren't keen on store-bought pickled beets, try pickling some yourself. It's really worth the effort. What are you canning/pickling/preserving this harvest season?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Blog Action Day - October 15

October 15 has been designated as Blog Action Day, where many bloggers around the world will post on a single topic and/or donate one day's earnings to a charity. With our focus on sustainability and the environment, it seemed only natural to join this event. If you have suggestions for a specific topic, let us know by email or in the comments.

My Commutes

I feel extremely fortunate that I live close enough to my workplace that I'm able to bike to work in about 20 minutes (only 5-10 minutes more than by car when parking time is factored in). Not only that, most of the way, the view looks like this picture. I follow the WIOUWASH trail, which is an abandoned railroad track, so there are no hills and the trail goes alongside a lake and river the entire way. I routinely see half a dozen rabbits, squirrels, and one morning I almost ran over a daredevil chipmunk! There are also plenty of butterflies and birds.

Have you considered biking to work? It's a great workout, and may not take much longer than taking the car. Even if you just do it once a week, you're still getting a good workout and will use less fossil fuel.

As much as I like to bike, some mornings my commute looks like this:

Those are the days I telecommute. This is particularly nice to do on rainy or snowy days. Your employer may very well let you telecommute a few days per week. If you frequently get interrupted at the office, you may find that telecommuting is more productive than going in to the office.

Eating Locally

We've been reading about the Eat Local movement recently. We will probably join the September 2007 Challenge at Eat Local Challenge. Of course, we already get a fair amount of our food locally. We buy locally raised meat from a local farm (Cattleana Ranch in Omro, WI). And we have a fairly large garden where we grow potatoes, beets, carrots, squash, tomatoes, onions, and quite a few other things. We are buying milk from a local dairy (not too difficult in Wisconsin, though!) - we get ours at a local supermarket from Lamers Dairy in Appleton, WI. But for a lot of stuff, we have no idea where it comes from. In the following weeks, we will take an inventory of where the things come from that we eat. Stay tuned...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lawn watering

Quick! What's the best way to water the lawn?

If you answered 'Deep and Infrequent' you are following what a million web sites (actually 1,030,000 but who's counting?) and countless County Extension offices have been telling you to do for decades.

But there's some research out of Michigan State University that indicates that light infrequent watering in the middle of the day is the best approach. I first heard about this listening to the Environment Report. The research is conducted at the Turfgrass Institute, and is covered in two different publications.

The guideline for the strategy is as follows:
  1. Determine how much water your lawn needs per week (typically 1-2 inches, but varies by grass type).
  2. Divide amount by seven.
  3. Figure out how much your irrigation system delivers in a specific period of time.
  4. Water your lawn for this period of time every day just at the beginning of the hottest period of day (around 2:00pm).
What this does is helps keep the grass cool, and only waters the fairly shallow area that grass roots actually grow in. There's no sense to watering a foot down when grass roots only grow down 2-3 inches.

We switched to this strategy a few weeks ago and have seen significant improvements in the lawn despite having had quite hot weather. According to the articles this should also save water over deep frequent watering. For us, I think it's a wash, but the lawn is greening up nicely. You would need a timer system for this to work. An in-ground sprinkler system is of course the best choice for this.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Organize the Kitchen

LifeHacker has a nice post referring to a LifeOrganizers post on 5 Steps to Running an Efficient Kitchen, including
  • Start a Grocery List. We have a dry-erase board on the wall where we write everything that's needed as we run out. The kids have even started using it (although their priorities are not always the same as ours...). We also try to buy stuff when we use the second-to last item (i.e. buy a new box of coffee filters when you open the last one). Then you're pretty sure not to run out.
  • Do a Weekly Menu Plan. Kim does an awesome job planning our meals every week. She uses a notebook with the menu for a week on one side and the grocery list on the other side. She shops every Friday after work while I cook pizza. As someone commented on Lifehacker, shopping once a week does have drawbacks in terms of freshness on some items. For us, though, our shopping options for real fresh items like seafood are limited anyway - not a lot of fish here that's caught even this week! And let's not even get started on the quality of the baked goods! (maybe fodder for a new post). But it sure cts down on time to shop once a week. And tracking expenses is easier too.
  • Cook Ahead and Freeze. We do this all the time. Sometimes by accident when the kids won't touch a recipe, we'll freeze enough for the two of us to eat a second meal. We also will bring leftovers to work - much cheaper than buying lunch.
  • Do Advanced Prepwork. Not sure I see the point here, unless it's just working smart on making the meal you're working on. No doubt you have to take chopping time into consideration with some meals.
  • Clean As You Go. Keeping the sink filled and wash everything as you go, so there isn't a big load of dishes to do afterwards... I dunno. Seems like it would use much more hot water than doing them all in one batch. And I'm typically too busy making the meal to worry about washing as I go. I do try to put stuff away as I'm doe with it to avoid having a lot of cleanup at the end.
Another thing we do is work on several things at the same time. For instance I will bake bread and make dinner in the same batch. Breadbaking has lots of downtime where dinner can be prepared, and letting something rise an extra 10 minutes is usually not a big deal.

Organizing the kitchen with the things you need in easy reach is important as well.

How about you? What do you do to work efficiently?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Recipe: Home-Made Pizza

Every Friday night at our house the menu is for pizza. And not just any pizza. This is Dad's Pizza, and it's the best in town (well, after Pappa Johns, the one my youngest had at a friends house, ...), and anyone who says otherwise is itching for a fight :-)

So, since it's Friday and I'm about to make those pizzas, I thought I would blog along with cooking. So, here's the annotated recipe:

This batch makes two 16-inch pizzas. We like a thick crust (this one's a little less than an inch thick). If you prefer thinner crust, make more pizzas or cut portion size in half.

Crust ingredients:
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 1.5 Tbsp dry yeast (2 packets)
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 0.5 Tbsp salt
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2-3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary or lavendar, finely chopped (or 1 tsp dried) (optional)
Dissolve yeast and honey in water in large mixing bowl. Let stand a few minutes until yeast foams. Add oil, salt and whole wheat flour. Mix well. Add unbleached flour a little at a time while mixing well with sturdy spoon (I use a large wooden spoon). When you can't mix with a spoon anymore, knead dough on lightly floured table. Add flour as needed and knead until dough is elastic. Let dough raise in oiled bowl for 20-30 minutes. It doesn't have to quite double in size, but should raise some.

Divide dough in two equal balls, and roll out on two pizza stones or cookie sheets. Let rest 10 minutes.

Pre-bake at 175C (350F) until pizza is slightly golden (about 15-20 minutes). Remove and add toppings (sauce, cheese, and whatever else you like). We tend to make a kids version (tomato sauce, cheese, and one type of meat) and an adult version (tomato sauce, cheese, onion, peppers, and whatever else we have lying around). Toppings is really your chance to experiment and improvise. Make it your own! Try fresh tomato slices, basil, and feta cheese.

Bake pizza for 8-10 minutes at 500F until crust is brown and cheese is golden. Tale care that the crust doesn't burn.

Simple Sauce (for one pizza):
  • 1 small can of tomato sauce (8 oz)
  • Paprika
  • Italian seasoning
  • Garlic powder (or crushed fresh garlic)
  • Pinch of sugar
I never measure the herbs and spices. They just go in as I feel - experiment. Add all ingredients to microwave safe bowl and microwave 2-3 minutes. Stir and let stand for a few minutes.

Rustic Sauce
Makes enough for one pizza

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 regular can of diced tomatoes (14 oz)
  • paprika
Sautée onion and garlic in oil until clear. Add remaining ingredients, and simmer for about an hour. Challenge here is to get the consistency right. It tends to become a bit watery. If it doesn't work out right, you can add a little tomato sauce.

If you make this, leave a comment with your impressions.

How to Get Started

Lighter Footstep has a great articles for those just getting started on becoming environmentally aware. It lists the first 10 steps toward a more sustainable lifestyle. Here they are with my commentary on what we've done:
  1. Compact Fluorescents (CFL): When we built our house a few years ago, we put in CFLs in many places, but still could have more. Garage and basement have incandescents, but we will probably move to CFL there as well. Garage may be an issue with the cold in winter.
  2. Thermostat (LF advice: Up 2 degrees in summer, down 2 in winter): We haven't done this, but have programmable thermostat that we monitor quite often.
  3. Clean or replace your air conditioning filter. Our thermostat control includes reminders to clean/replace filters. In fact I need to do that this weekend.
  4. Unplug idle appliances and electronic devices. Haven't done this too much. We have too many computers running too much. I like the idea of turning off appliances with powerstrips. Just need to be careful with some that have internal clocks.
  5. Buy a low-flow shower head with a shutoff valve. Our showers all have dual controls for flow and temperature, so it's not a big deal to turn off water mid-shower (although we rarely do it). They're all low-flow though.
  6. Drive smarter: Keep tires inflated (check - most of the time), don't idle (check), drive less aggressively (check - I think).
  7. Get an annual tune-up for your car. Need to look into this ($300 sounds like a lot)
  8. Ride your bike. I've been riding my bike to work most of the summer. It's great (especially early in the morning when it's not too hot yet).
  9. Go meatless once a week. We did this a while, but got away from it. May make a veggie pizza tonight, though.
  10. Buy local; buy in season. Went to the local farmer's market earlier this summer, and was disappointed - all the stalls had largely the same 5-6 different types of produce at pretty high prices. We do belong to a meat CSA so most of our meat is local. We buy milk that is from a local dairy and is delivered in reusable glass containers. We also grow a fair number of our vegetables ourselves (anyone need any zucchini?)
What about you? What have you done?