Monday, January 8, 2018

Dumplings or Biscuits?

... That was the question I asked each of my family members this afternoon. 

We had some chicken stew leftover from the other night.  For that meal, I made dumplings, which were all eaten, but some of the stew remained. 

It's what's for lunch today.

My, personal, preference is dumplings.  Not "slippery dumplings", which I learned ... here on this blog, actually ... are a thick egg noodle.  The ingredients are: flour, eggs, (seasonings if one wishes), and enough water to bind it into a firm, but soft dough that can be rolled out and cut. 

They're popular down south.  My mother used to make them, and I was given her recipe after I went to college.  We called them "noodles", and "chicken noodles" used to be a staple, both in my house growing up and here at Chez Brown when my daughters were much younger.

When we had to cut wheat flour out of our diet, so too went the "slippery dumplings."

It's okay, though, because I actually prefer the other kind, which are, basically, a biscuit that's cooked on top of stew.  I use the same recipe for my dumplings that I use for biscuits.  They're big and puffy and gooey ... oh, heavenly little pillows of dough!

A few years ago, before we gave up wheat flour, I used to make my own bread all of the time.  One summer, I was exploring bread options that didn't require my turning on the oven, because it was just too hot to bake. 

That summer I made several flat breads on the grill (my favorite is Na'an, which is brushed with garlic butter).  I also discovered that English Muffins are actually fried in a pan, not baked in an oven.

That was a cool discovery.

What made it even better, at least from my prepper mindset, was that those breads, assuming I had the ingredients, could be made without an oven.   Any thing I can cook that doesn't require electricity is a positive menu addition. 

Alas, gluten-free bread dough is usually a lot less firm, and so making Na'an or English Muffins hasn't worked for me.

But what I can make are dumplings, which is what I did make.

As mentioned, my dumpling recipe is the same recipe I use for making biscuits.  My family likes them, and I'm thinking that, like my grandmother, I might need to make biscuits a regular, daily staple.  I mean, if there's soup, we can always have dumplings instead. 

Gluten-Free Biscuits, or totally Awesome Gluten-Free Dumplings

2 c. Gluten-Free all purpose flour  (my favorite is Bob's Red Mill 1-to-1 Baking Flour)
1 TBSP baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 TBSP sugar
8 TBSP butter
1 c. buttermilk (I just use raw milk, and it works fine)

1.  Mix all of the dry ingredients in a bowl.
2.  Add butter and mix with dry ingredients until mixture resembles corn meal.
3.  Make a well in the flour mixture and add milk.  *I use my hands to mix the flour and milk into a soft, but firm dough.

For biscuits:  Pat the dough out on a cutting board until it's about an inch thick, and then, using a regular sized canning jar ring as a cutter, cut my dough into biscuit rounds.  Bake in a 400° oven until biscuits are golden brown.

For dumplings:  Roll dough into golf ball sized dough balls.  Drop into boiling stew.  Cover and cook for about fifteen minutes until dumplings have doubled in size and are cooked on the inside. 


Friday, January 5, 2018

Five Holiday Decorations that are Free or Cheap

I love holiday decorations.  I have a friend who puts up her Christmas tree in October, and it's beautiful - at least in pictures.  I admire that she can have a decoration up for so long and that it continues to sparkle and be pretty for all of that time.

I can't do that.

First, I live in a smaller-than-average house, and since we just managed to declutter anyway, devoting any space to a seasonal thing takes a lot of effort.

Second, I live in a smaller-than-average house with limited storage.  We have a lot more now that we've created a 64 square foot (ish) space for storage under our bed, but we still don't have a lot of space to store seasonal decorations.  So, everything needs to fit in one plastic tote.

Finally, I just don't have a lot of money for decorations that are used once a year and then, shoved into a dark corner.

We do have a tree.

A couple of years ago, when we were still in the midst of our remodel, and we had even less space than we have now for a tree and I lamented that we weren't going to be able to have a tree that year, my very good friend bought us a 3' tall artificial tree.  It was the most amazing gift I've ever received.  It doesn't take up a lot of space, and it stores well under the bed.

Judging from the displays at the store, holiday decorations, alone, are a huge business.  But we don't have to be sucked into crazy expensive decorating to make our spaces feel festive.  Here are five tips for decorating that are free or cheap.

1.  Paper Snowflakes

It has long been a tradition here at Chez Brown to adorn our windows with paper snowflakes.   I learned how to cut them when my girls were young, and as they grew older, I was sure to teach them the technique. 

Our snowflakes are free, except for the cost of the tape to affix them to the windows.  We use recycled paper, and, mostly, we can't see the writing. 

We have the snowflakes on windows on the two sides of the house that are visible from the road, and I get just as much pleasure looking from the inside out at my pretty snowflakes, as I do driving up to my house and seeing the little whimsy on the windows.

2.  Origami

We had our first holiday party this year after many years of not inviting folks over because the house was such a topsy-turvy mess.  In an attempt to make things look more festive, but having neither the desire nor the ability to run out to the Christmas Tree shop and buy a bunch of stuff, we opted for some homemade decorations.  

My daughter has recently discovered the art of paper folding, and she made dozens of beautiful art pieces that we attached to strings and hung from the ceiling.  In fact, a huge paper crane is flying over the bathtub.   I'm just going to leave it there for a while, because it looks pretty. 

3.  Lights

During the holiday season there are certain items that are just ridiculously cheap.  From a frugal standpoint, lights are one of the biggest bangs for one's buck.  They transform a room/space almost immediately into something sparkling and magical. 

From a prepper standpoint, lights are actually pretty useful, because in addition to the plethora of LED string lights that need to be plugged into an outlet, there are half a dozen options for battery-powered lights.  

For less than $5, I was able to find several very small strings of LED battery-operated lights AND a couple of battery-powered candles.  Neither put out a lot of light (certainly not enough to read by - especially with my weak eyes), but they're fine for things like using the bathroom.  The bonus is that we have more lighting options during a power outage, but we also have these pretty, twinkling lights to add to our holiday decor. 

4.  Candy Canes

For more years than I can count, we have used candy canes on our tree as a decoration, and it's fun to have our children and guests pick the decorations off the tree and enjoy the treat.  

At less than a dollar for a dozen, it's a hard decoration to pass up, and who doesn't love a good pepperminty treat around the holidays?

5.  Real Greenery

This time of year, every where we look, are people making and selling holiday wreaths.  While I do love to support local businesses and entrepreneurs, making one's own wreath is easy and can be free.  In addition, finding the greenery to put on one's wreath can be an adventure on its own.  Who doesn't love a brisk walk through the snow packed woods?

Plus there's the added benefit of harvesting evergreen boughs that also makes wonderful, healthful teas for this time of year.

What are your favorite, free, holiday decor traditions?

Thursday, January 4, 2018


I waded out in the storm a few minutes ago to fill up the sled with firewood. 

Waded is exactly the perfect word.  Snow was almost up to my knees.  It's actually pretty awesome.  I actually really love the snow. 

Before I could make my way out of the door, however, I had to shovel the snow away from the doorway so that when I came back into the house with the sled-full of firewood, I wouldn't track half the front yard's worth of flakes back into the house with me.  I mean, it cleans up easily since we replaced the carpeting with tile, but less is better, if we can, because an accumulation of too much snow inside the door makes it hard to firmly close the door. 

Aside:  After I came back inside 
the house, I had to mop up the 
snow-turned-to-water, and I 
said, "The floor needed to be 
mopped anyway!"  And I thought, 
"Hey, I am an optimist ;).  

While I was outside, shoveling in a blizzard, I thought about my lifestyle. 

We heat with wood (off-grid).
We cook with an electric stove (grid dependent).
We line-dry all of our clothes (off-grid).
We wash all of the clothes in a machine (grid dependent).
We have a propane hot water tank (off grid).
We have a houseful of electronic devices (grid dependent).
Most of our devices can be charged with solar chargers or the bicycle generator (off grid).
We have an electric refrigerator and freezer (grid dependent).
We can and dehydrate a lot of food each year (off grid).

We have a garden that is maintained, solely, with hand tools.
We raise chickens and rabbits for food.
I make some of my own clothes. 
We repair, if we're able, instead of purchasing new.

Have you seen those "Never have I ever" posts on Facebook?  It's a list of things one may or may not have done.  For every one "not" done, one receives a point.  On this one, I have only one point.  

I've never milked a goat.  But I have milked a cow ... and myself (both using a pump and by hand - don't judge.  I breastfed for a long time and had a very sick baby at one point).  Does that count?

Anyway, all of these things got me thinking, and I realized that, while our ultimate goal is to be free of dependence on the grid, what we have is, probably, the best of both worlds.  

I'm going to call our lifestyle "Grid Light."  We still have a lot of luxurious modern amenities, that we very much enjoy, but we also do a LOT of stuff for ourselves.  It's happy marriage.

What about you?  Are you grid-light - not off grid, but if the power goes off, it's not a big deal?


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Storm Preps ... When You're Already Prepped

There's a storm a'coming ... according to the news reports.  It's expected to dump "double-digit" snow amounts, but it's not just the amount of snow that's the problem.  In addition to a significant accumulation of the stuff that makes Christmas so magical, there will be wind.

I watched a video weather report from a local news station this morning.  The weather guy isn't mucking about.  He's warning people of the storm, but more than that, he's saying "There WILL BE power outages.  So, be ready."  Yep.  He used those words.

He can not, and will not, say where those outages will occur.  The worst of the storm is going to be closer to the coast, and so, he's advising those of us with the beach nearby to be ready. 

His report included a lot of just commonsense advice on how to stay safe and warm during a power outage - things like, vent kerosene/propane heaters and generators OUTSIDE.  One would think that would be a given, but unfortunately, there are too many (with one being too many) carbon monoxide deaths each winter. 

We're covered for heat, as our regular heat is "alternative."  That is, it doesn't depend on the grid to function.  As a prep, I will make sure the wood box in the house is filled up, and I might stack a few logs within easier reach on the porch.  I might not.  It doesn't matter, as the wood isn't really that far away anyway.  I have a small yard.

It's unlikely that our water supply will be interrupted, but just in case, I'll make sure the extra waterers for our rabbits and chickens are thawed and filled in advance of the storm.  We have some stored drinking water.  So, we're good there. 

The freezer is already packed, and it will stay cold for a few days without electricity. 

We're prepared in most of the ways that experts advise us to be.  I mean, we're always prepared in those ways.   So ... I can take a nap, right?

This morning, I started thinking about ways that I should be prepping - just in case we lose power, and I realized that I do, actually, have a few things I could be doing - rather than napping (although, I may do that too, because these preps won't take long).

There are certain modern luxuries to which I have access, and which I regularly use ... and potentially take for granted.  Most of us don't even think about those things until we don't have them.  I thought about them today.

The first is my washing machine.  It's this bulky, metal thing that sits in the laundry closet in our bathroom.  A few times a week, I turn the little knob so that water begins to fill the tub, and then, I add clothes and detergent, and walk away.  A bit later, I return, pull the wet (presumably, clean) clothes out of the machine, and hang them up, either on the drying rack or outside on the line ... or both, depending on what was in there (sheets and blankets go on the line outside year round). 

If we lose power, I won't be able to take advantage of this magic machine.  I can still do laundry, but it's a lot more labor intensive and time consuming if I have to do it in the wash tub and put the clothes through the wringer. 

I'm doing laundry today.

The second is my dishwasher.  I have a counter-top sized dishwasher.  It's about half the size of a regular dishwasher.  Usually, this size of a dishwasher is reserved for single people or couples without children who live in tiny apartments.  It shouldn't be big enough for my family of four, but we make it work.  We run it once a day, on average. 

The dishwasher is an almost sinful convenience.  There has been a lot of debate about whether hand washing or using a machine is more eco-friendly.  I've read all of the arguments on both sides of the fence, and initially, I was firmly in the hand-washing camp.  In the end, what sold me on the dishwasher was washing jars.  The problem is that getting my hand in those jars can be a challenge.  I can do it, if I soap up my hand, but I have bruised my pinky knuckle trying to wash those jar, and I've broken a few jars around my fist.  Neither is fun.

But there's more than just the injury potential that makes me favor the dishwasher for cleaning my jars.  I'm a bit of a neurotic when it comes to cleaning canning jars, because I not only use those jars daily as drinking glasses, but I store food in them.  Improperly preserved food can result in illness and/or death.  I'll be honest.  Botulism scares the shit out of me.  So, I'm really careful. 

I'll be doing as many dishwasher loads as it takes to get all of the dishes out of my sink before tomorrow's storm gets into full swing.

The last is my vacuum cleaner.  I have a love-hate relationship with that particular tool.  In the 1950s someone told housewives that they needed to convince their husbands that they needed wall-to-wall carpeting.  Oh, that soft, luxurious warmth underfoot probably felt like Nirvana to people who were accustomed to rising in the morning and treading across a cold, wood or tile floor.  If I had grown up without carpeting and central heat, I might have thought it was pretty awesome, too.

Housewives were also convinced, through the lying cheats in the marketing industry, that keeping the carpeted floors clean was a lot easier and less labor intensive than keeping the wood or tile floors clean.  Vacuuming is not easier than sweeping with a broom.  Steam-cleaning the carpets is not easier, nor less labor intensive (and certainly not less resource wasting) than mopping. 

So, yeah.  Someone lied. 

I hate our throw-away society.  Carpeting is not made to last.  It wears out.  In fact, it wears out pretty quickly.  The life span of carpeting is 10 years, which is longer than most people own their homes.  When Deus Ex Machina and I bought our house, our realtor assured us that, when we were ready to upgrade ... in five years ... she would look forward to working with us again.  Say, what?  Apparently, the average length of stay in a home is five years.  Which means that most people don't replace the flooring in their homes - not while they're living there.  We've been in this house for twenty years.  We're above average, apparently.

Just let me say that replacing the flooring, while one is living in the house, sucks.  Any renovation, while still inhabiting the dwelling, kind of sucks, and you all know that I know this to be fact.  Changing the flooring is difficult, because one can not live on that floor while one is replacing it, and so things have to be disrupted.  If one is transitioning to a long-lasting flooring option - like tile - the process is days' long.   Compare that to carpeting, which takes a few hours to remove and install.

But, let me just repeat that keeping a non-carpeted floor clean off-grid, or when the grid is down, is a lot easier than cleaning carpets when there are no machines, which is why I'm working, diligently, to remove all carpets from my house, and while I'm almost there, we still have three rooms with carpet, including my office.

As such, one of my pre-storm preps will be to vacuum that carpet.  I'll probably vacuum it more than once, because I have really big dogs ... who shed ... a lot. 

Today, in advance of the storm, I'll be prepping ... doing laundry, doing dishes, vacuuming the floors. 

Huh?  Guess it's just like any other day after all.

If you're in the path of a storm, what are you doing to prep?

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 - The Year of the Long Emergency??

2017 was a very interesting year here at Chez Brown.  So many things happened - here, to us personally, but also in the world. 

If I were into fear-mongering, 2017 was one of the best years, ever, for trying to rally people into preparedness.  I mean, we have a Leader who seems hell-bent on getting us into a war, on destroying the environment, and on allowing Big Business more freedom to kill us with their poison food and questionably safe practices. 

It was a banner year for those with a prepping mindset.

And, yet, somehow, those voices were oddly silent. 

What I did see in 2017 were a lot of politically-motivated articles on preparedness websites, mostly about how we needed to guard ourselves against the liberals.  I'm not going to delve into a political discussion here, because that's not what I do, but it is interesting that each side is always pointing the finger, but never looking back to where those other three fingers are pointing.  What's that saying, "Every time you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing right back at you"?


There was a lot of blog fodder that I, and most places where I used to read, chose not to address.  I guess when the fiction starts to become too real, it's easier to just pretend it's not so real after all.  I'm not saying that I ostriched myself, because I didn't.  I also didn't employ a wait-and-see attitude.  In fact, we continued to do what we have always done:  we raised meat birds; we planted a garden; we harvested and preserved food; we gathered for our winter heat; we lived our lives, like we always do.

For most of the year, as I watched events unfold that were too close to those dystopian fiction novels I love, I didn't tap out a blog post, because ... well, frankly, I felt most of the time that I'd already said it.  Sometimes blogging about the end of the world, when it's a whimper rather than a bang, begins to feel too much like a being broken record. 

In 2017, unlike most years, here at Chez Brown, we were forced to really look at our financial health.  Deus Ex Machina was laid-off last summer.  We made it through without a hiccup, but when it happened, we sat down and did some really number crunching.  We were golden, at our current level of spending, for a couple of months.  We eased back on our spending, and it carried us through the entire summer without having to make any crazy changes, and then, Deus Ex Machina was hired by a national company that, as it turns out, has some pretty stellar benefits.  It's a good paycheck.

But what's odd is that, even as we are making more money than we've ever made, ever, we aren't living like we make more money than we've ever made, ever.  We live the same as we've always lived.  We don't vacation in Barbados.  We're not paying for expensive toys: there are no boats in dry dock, jet skis in one of those "toy trailers" or snowmobiles out in the yard.  We don't have a big, expensive house.  Our truck is ten years old and was bought used.  Our car is almost five years old. 

I've been a long-time fan of James Howard Kunstler.  Ever since I read, The Long Emergency, I've listened to what he says, because, frankly, too much of what he supposes could happen in his book IS happening.  It's happening now, but so slowly that we aren't paying attention - the proverbial frogs in simmering water.  By the time we figure it out, we'll be boiled ... unless ....

The above experience with our income is a really good example of that slow boil.  We make more money than we've ever made before, and yet, we live the same - by choice, of course, but also not, because we choose not to go into significant debt to have those toys, and make no mistake, it would require us going into debt to get those things. 

Which makes it even crazier, right? 

I follow a frugality blog called 100 Dollars a Month.  It's an awesome blog, and I have a guest post there.   When I first started reading Mavis' blog, I completely discounted most of her advice on buying groceries, because at the time, a lot of her advice centered on buying cheap food that was on sale or for which she had coupons.  We were eating, mostly, local foods, and there are rarely coupons for that sort of dietary staple.  It also doesn't go on sale.  I pay $6/gallon for raw milk.  When the milk is old, the farmer doesn't mark it down in an attempt to still sell it.  He feeds it to the pigs. 

Mavis is still blogging, and she still has a lot of great frugal advice, but she no longer feeds her family on $100 a month.  She, now, feeds her family on $250 month.  That number still seems incredibly low to me.  Even with all of the food we grow ourselves, we still spend a lot more at the grocery store per month than $250.  But if she says that's what she spends, I believe her.  I'm still trying to make it happen for my family. 

Don't judge.  It's a journey, alright ...!

The thing is that Mavis was feeding her family on $100 a month, and now, she's spending one and a half times what she used to spend - just to feed her family.

One and a half TIMES. 

Deus Ex Machina and I were having a discussion this morning.  I observed that the price per barrel for oil has been hovering around $40 for a long time, and yet, the price of gasoline and heating oil has not gone down.  Here in Maine, we're spending, on average, $2.50 per gallon for gasoline.  I realize that's cheap compared to other places, but with oil at $40/barrel, we should be paying less than $2/gallon.

He says it's inflation.  It's the ever-increasing minimum wage.  It's the cost of labor.

But per the government reports, inflation is at an all-time low.  Minimum wage was last increased in 2009, and, in fact, minimum wage peaked in 1968, when it was (adjusted for 2016 dollars) over $8/hour.  Today's minimum wage is not even what the average worker was being paid in 1968 - and we thought we were poor back then!  Ha! 

Employment is at an all-time high, but that statistic includes everyone who has a job including people who are only working part-time, because they have to have a job, and they can't find a full-time job (as such employment figures are misleading when using those figures to discuss the "recovering economy") or who are working in jobs with incomes that don't fit their education/experience level, i.e. underemployed. 

According to this article, we're experiencing some strange economic anomaly.   Apparently, low unemployment is supposed to cause an increase in inflation, but it hasn't.  And, yet, prices are increasing, but not because of inflation. 

Then, he said something really profound and is actually the crux of the issue:  Exxon Mobile is reporting record-high profits. 

Well, isn't that special?

So, back to our personal income.  We make more than we've ever made, and, yet, we live just like we always have.  In fact, we'll be doing a spending moratorium in January to get our finances in order ... and, again, we didn't get crazy with the Cheese Whiz and buy a 50" flat screen TV for Christmas, or buy all new furnishes for our "new bedroom", or get Hamilton tickets for next summer, or embark on any ridiculously costly or extravagant spending excursion.  We spent our, usual, modest amount on Christmas gifts.  We paid our bills.  We bought groceries. 

But there's more. 

We did finish a room remodel this summer.  Expensive, right?  Wrong!  The paint for the room was less than $20 - total.  The ceiling was free, except for the nails.  The flooring was free, except for the finishing tools and products (which, all total, cost less than $500, including renting a sander).  We reused our old furniture with the exception of the purchase of an armoire ... used, that cost $70, and it was purchased LAST winter.  We drove through a snowstorm to get it.   

Speaking of furniture, after we finished the room remodel, I started looking for some very specific furniture pieces to fit into our space.  I wanted wing-backed chairs, because I like the style and it's a nice chair for small, cramped spaces.  I wanted a storage ottoman for our living room to give us storage in that small, narrow room and for extra seating when we have more than four people in the room.  We opted for an armoire in our bedroom rather than building a closet.  All of those pieces, altogether - four chairs, a storage ottoman, and the armoire - cost us $210. 
So, what the hell?  We finished the room, and it was, mostly, free.  All of our "new-to-us" furniture was purchased used from FB Yardsale sites (including our "new" glasstop convection oven - a different post :)).   And, yet, we don't have a huge savings or some ridiculous disposable income for crazy luxuries.

We are in the midst of Kunstler's long emergency.  Everything is getting more expensive, and even if wages kept pace with the ever increasing cost of living, we'd still be exactly where we've always been. 

But wages won't keep pace, because they don't.  If inflation also increases, we're really going to be struggling.  Those folks who are already struggling will find themselves in greater dire straits - financially speaking.

I haven't seen a lot of prepper talk over the last year or so.  My prepper community has been strangely quiet about stocking up and such. 

What I have seen, however, are preppers talking about frugality.  I've done it, too.  We're understanding, perhaps, that we are, indeed, in the Long Emergency, and that stockpiling for TEOTWAWKI looks a heck of a lot different than we imagined a decade ago. 

Instead of getting ready for some big event, we're realizing that we need to be prepared, ever-ready (like a flashlight), for those every day things that happen. 

Like a job loss.

Or a hurricane (which in Puerto Rico in 2017, was/is, actually, their TEOTWAWKI).

Or a wildfire.

Or a flood. 

In fact, what we're discovering is that we don't need to be stockpiling for TEOTWAWKI, what we need to be doing is learning to live more with less.

My wishlist included a book called Muddy Branch: Memories of an Eastern Kentucky Coal Camp, written by Clyde Roy Pack.  The memoir details Pack's experiences as a child growing up in the much maligned coal camps of yesteryear.  He says, in the opening pages, "... we were poor - which wasn't really all that big a deal since we didn't know it until we were grown and LBJ came and declared war on our poverty."  He adds, "I never in my life went to bed hungry."

Maybe it's time for us to accept the fact that, more than ever, we need to learn to not depend wholly on a crumbling infrastructure and a disinterested government body to save us.  What we need, instead, is to learn skills like cooking, gardening, and chopping wood; to stockpile and learn to use tools that don't require electricity; to create a lifestyle that doesn't force us into dependence, but rather elevates us into self-sufficiency. 

What's more valuable than money in the bank?  Not needing money in the bank.