Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dumpster Diving

We hit the dumpster motherload at Trader Joe's on Thursday. We scored two hefty bags of food, mostly prepared salads, sandwiches, spring rolls, etc. We also got some pre-made chicken parmesan with linguine, a bag of oranges, and a bag of pears. Dumpster diving is a great way to reduce food waste, spend less money on food, feed ourselves and our chickens. Lots of people who've never dumpster dived are concerned about food safety, and with the recent outbreak of salmonella from peanut butter, this is a good opportunity to talk about good dumpstering practices.

1. Most food you will find in a dumpster has been 'spoiled' because it's sell-by date is the following day. For most things, the sell-by date is way ahead of the use-buy date.

2. Other things are spoiled because they get dirty--we once found a case of tangerine juice in the dumpster because, as far as we could tell, one of the bottles had burst and gotten the rest sticky.

3. Winter is better than summer for dumpstering because the food is less likely to get in the "danger zone" of 40 degrees or higher. We will eat meat from the dumpster in the winter, but generally not in the heat of summer. There's no telling how long it's been sitting in an 80 degree dumpster.

4. Learn to recognize the signs of bad food. If it smells bad, don't eat it. Pay attention to FDA food recalls. You can always find a list of recalled products (by vendor) at

5. Etiquette. Don't leave a mess. If you leave a mess, you may return the following week to find a padlock on the dumpster. Be discreet, and don't inconvenience anyone by your presence. Sometimes, you will encounter other dumpster divers at the scene. Share! The food is free and there's plenty to go around.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cold Frame Update

It's almost February, and the plants in our cold frame are doing well. The transplants aren't putting out much growth, with the exception of the arugula pictured here. Our sprouts, though they are growing more slowly than they would in warmer weather, are thriving. The spinach is probably the happiest, but we also have kale with its first set of true leaves, chard, and lettuce just starting to come up. We planted these guys in mid-December. We'll see how long it takes to have an edible crop!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fixed laptop charger

Well, we finally got some more solder and so we've fixed my laptop charger for the second time. I've had the charger for about 2 years. 6 months ago, the side that connects to the laptop via magnet became frayed from too much yanking. I resoldered it and used glue to stabilize the wire. Last week, the other end met the same fate. This one was harder to fix. We whacked the plastic box open using a hammer and a screwdriver for prying, disconnected the original wires from the board, and resoldered a freshly cut wire end in its place. Now I've got to put the box back on and use some more of that glue to keep everything in place. By the way, the cost of a replacement charge is $45-$60. Eesh.

Snock 'n Roll!

Snock 'N Roll: Adventures With Michael Hurley from Marc Israel on Vimeo.

Awhile back, I posted about filmmaker Marc Israel and his charming, whimsical, and hilarious work. Well, he's done it again! This time his subject is legendary folk singer Michael Hurley, in a short documentary you can watch online. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Black Hole

Click Here to see more pictures

For those of you who enjoy salvage and live in New Mexico, if you haven't been to the Black Hole, you need to go. Now.


The Black Hole is a scrap yard full of discards from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Meters, glassware, pressure valves, electronic equipment--you name it, they've got it. It's freezing cold inside--there are buckets everywhere to catch water dripping from the roof.


Discarded lab remnants are stacked precariously everywhere (I admit I knocked a few things over). The sheer scale of this place is amazing. A whole shelf full of telephones, one of staplers, oscilloscopes...We spent pretty much the whole day there, wandering around.

The Black Hole is also part museum. In amongst the jumble you will find pieces of equipment labeled, "Not For Sale - Museum". Apparently the store's proprietor is a former lab employee who was fired for participation in peace protests in the 60s. There are anti-war, anti-bomb messages and artwork everywhere. And yes, there are a few geiger counters in the store to make sure nothing is radioactive. Well, not too radioactive...


Tristan and our friend Zevin bought various things for making musical robots, and I took lots of pictures because I was too overwhelmed to actually buy anything.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Technical Difficulties

So, my laptop power cord melted/broke, and I am temporarily without. I think I can fix it (already had to do this on the other end) but I am lazy and can't find the solder. So, that's partly why there haven't been posts in a few days. Hopefully I'll be up and running again soon. Coming soon: ukulele refurbishing and our first homemade mash for beer.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Spent several hours today perfecting a design for fancy paper wallets, which I may try to sell somewhere around town. They've got four card slots, a bill slot, and are super thin.

Part of my plan for the year is to find ways to bring in some extra income, to eventually learn how to make some money without relying on a 9 to 5. Baby steps...

Friday, January 16, 2009


We are not big mayonnaise eaters, but we do like to make our own because it's relatively simple, quite cheap, and you have more control over the flavor. But since we don't eat a lot of it, we don't make it all that often, and are far from masters of mayo.

I made a batch last week that looked pretty enough--nice solid emulsion, nice yellow color. However, due to a ridiculously stupid choice to use unrefined corn oil, the mayonnaise tasted like crap.

Tristan showed me how it's done the following day--pictured is his mayonnaise made from canola oil. it's delicious! We made egg salad sandwiches with a combination of homegrown and dumpstered eggs, homemade mayo, and homemade bread. Yummy.

Mayonnaise Recipe:

1 cup oil of your choice (not too strong flavored)
1 egg yolk
2 tsp. lemon juice
1 Tbl. vinegar
2 pinches sugar
1/2 tsp. ground mustard seed
1/2 tsp. salt

The key to mayo is in the prep. You have to get a good emulsion going by beating the egg yolk and dry ingredients. Then mix the acids (vinegar and lemon juice) in a separate container and add half of it to the egg yolk. Thoroughly whisk this together. Then you can start to add the oil, VERY slowly (a few drops at a time). You must keep whisking without stopping at this stage (or use a stand mixer). Slowly speed up your pouring til you have a thin stream, and continue at this pace til half the oil is in. At this point, it's safe to add the rest of the acid, then continue pouring the oil in until everything is incorporated. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours. The acid in the mayo makes this safe, and improves the flavor. Then refrigerate and use within a week.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Keg Hunt

It's a miracle! A mere two days after being advised to find a keg to hack into a 15 gallon brew pot, we found an abandoned keg with a broken valve behind a local brewery. We brought it home, and the next day Tristan valiantly hauled said keg on his bicycle (impressive!) to a metal shop we had noticed a few blocks from our house. Lo and behold, the guys at the shop agreed to hack the keg for $18. The cost of a real pot that size? About $180!! So our hack cost 1/10th the going price.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bye Bye Debt

Self reliance is something I don't often talk about overtly on this blog. It is, nonetheless, one of the underlying motivations for just about everything I write about here.

What better to foil a perfectly good plan for self-reliance than...debt? Debt keeps you reliant on working a 9 to 5 job, and it keeps you dependent on big, evil companies. As we all know, creditors prey on the vulnerable, encouraging people to live beyond their means, and then they spend their entire lives trying to pay for it.

I have never been a fan of credit cards, and have always bought things with only the money I have on hand. That changed when my lovely cat Lionshead decided to have a near-death experience. I had Lionshead spayed at a clinic in Philadelphia that, in hind sight, maybe wasn't the most reputable. All was well for four months, until shortly after we moved to Santa Fe. One morning I found Lionshead popping a squat all over the house, trying to excrete something that didn't seem to want to come out. Turns out that's because it was her intestines. Long story short, my kitty needed emergency abdominal surgery, and it was going to cost a lot of money. When I asked the vet about payment plans, they told me I could apply for a credit card that is for medical expenses like this. So I did. Over the course of this year, my accident-prone cat has racked up several thousand dollars in debt, and I have been steadily paying it off. The card, CareCredit, offered me enticing promotional deals: no interest for a year, 6 months, or 3 months, depending. After that promotional period was up, however, watch out. Hundreds of dollars in deferred fees and interest await the tardy debtor. I was determined not to fall prey to this scheme. I paid as much as I could each month, religiously.

Well, I am pleased to say that as of today, I am debt-free again, and so is my cat.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


We've recently gotten back on the beermaking wagon. We've completed a steam lager, are about to bottle an oatmeal stout, and just set up new batches of British mild and hard cider, which you see bubbling away here. Making beer is perhaps the most cost-effective food you can make at home, with a 5-gallon batch costing about $30.

We almost never make beer alone--it's the perfect opportunity to have friends over, especially those who are interested in learning the process. In fact, we're thinking about organizing a beer cooperative, or Beer-of-the-Month Club, where a group of us can pitch in to buy the ingredients for a batch and then divvy up the yield.

We would really like to take our homebrew to the next level by doing our own mash and making large batches, but in order to do this we need a 15-gallon pot. It's been suggested to us that if we can get our hands on an abandoned keg and a plasma cutter, the resulting offspring would be the perfect size for the task. Time to start calling the area scrap yards! Oh, and check my Flickr Account for more pictures.

Corned Beef Update

The corned beef experiment was a raging success! The finished product is tangy and delicious, and tastes amazing with sauerkraut.

Baby's got a Brand New Blog

Tristan has recently started a blog of his own. His blog will feature his more tech-y tinkerings and hacks, like this hacked autoharp, as well as photography and plenty of other great stuff. So check it out, folks:

Saturday, January 10, 2009


A reader found an old post about my composting worms, in which I had promised to post pictures. Being the slacker that I am, I never did get around to taking pictures of the wormies. For those of you who don't know about vermicomposting, I will refer you to my previous posts.

Our colony of worms, which we got from a nice man on freecycle, has been thriving for about 6 months now. We usually keep our worms outside, but in consistently sub-freezing temps we brought them inside. The worm compost doesn't smell bad at all, but we do have a few extra unwelcome insects in the house now. Nothing major, but it's awfully hard to keep small flies and the like out of your worm bin entirely. If anyone has the secret to keeping a more pristine worm bin, please share.


Sauerkraut is one of those love it or hate it foods--I happen to love it. Sauerkraut is high in vitamin C, so it will keep you from getting scurvy on a high seas adventure. It's also the best possible companion to sausage.

Sauerkraut is made by lacto-fermentation. Nothing is added to the raw cabbage to aid in the fermentation process, except for salt. Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process, so it's important to keep the cabbage submerged in its own juices to prevent plain old rot.

We shredded one head of organic cabbage (1.8 lbs, $2.70), added 1 tablespoon of pickling salt, and let it wilt overnight. This morning, we packed it into this here jar and weighted it down with another jar. The salt draws the water out of the cabbage and makes its own brine. It should be ready to eat in about a week.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coconut Borscht

I've been putting this particular food experiment off for a long time, because cheese is my favorite food. Unfortunately, I also have a chronically stuffy nose. So, it being a new year and all, I'm experimenting with eliminating dairy from my diet for a few weeks, to see if it helps. I kind of hope it doesn't...

This coconut-ty borscht is another idea from my mentor Shelley in Boulder. It's beets & carrots from our CSA, onion, local garlic, and "whole" coconut milk pureed to magenta perfection. It's actually quite a delicious flavor combination. The beets were cooked on my rocket stove, but the rest on the regular stove because all I had for fuel was cardboard and I got sick of adding more fuel every 30 seconds.

Corned Beef: Vegetarians Beware!

Tristan and I spent the last week in my "hometown" of Boulder, CO, visiting friends and family. We stopped in to see a mentor of mine, the lady responsible for getting me involved with community radio. As it so happens she is also a fermented foods aficionado, and she treated us to a delicious lunch of borscht with homemade creme fraische, homemade sauerkraut, and the kicker--homemade corned beef! Corned beef is a fermented brisket. She made hers in a broth of sauerkraut juice, salt, and spices including bay leaves. She was also working on a low salt version, but it didn't seem to smell quite right, so she didn't feed it to us.

Corning beef is a way to preserve meat without refrigeration. That said, it's not smoked or dried, so you cant leave it sitting out like this forever. You could probably pressure can it once it's thoroughly pickled, but don't quote me on that. Rumor has it that the Irish used to corn beef during lent and eat it at the end. Other historians think corned beef has nothing to do with the Irish.

I'm pretty into the idea of doing more with preserving meat. Stocking Up had a hefty section on this sort of thing in a previous edition, but the edition I have has removed it for health concerns (most of the methods involve quite a lot of salt).

Of course we couldn't wait to try it at home. Pictured is our version, just set up today. Should be corned beef in 3 days or so. I'll let you know. And yes, it looks kind of gross...