Sunday, February 19, 2012

Doubling the Effort for Half the Energy

Our electric bill has been a little higher than we'd like the past few months.  Sure, you have to factor in the Christmas lights we hung (and only lit about five times) and the fact that winter's fewer daylight hours mean the indoor lighting comes on earlier and stays on longer.  But I don't think that's all.  According to our latest ComEd bill, we used 296 kilowatt hours this January.  Last month, 301 kWh.  Compare that to 244 and 222 kWh in December 2010 and January 2011, respectively.  We've using more electricity (shame on us), and I'll tell you why.

Inspired by Earth Hour, when you go dark for one hour by unplugging everything in your house, we had been regularly unplugging the nonessentials whenever we weren't using them.  Coffee maker, microwave, any other small kitchen appliances, TV, DVD, digital box, antenna (it plugs in for amplified receiving strength).  When we left the house for the day, when we went to bed, when we simply weren't watching TV.  And, of course, turning off the lights when we left a room.  This discipline lasted for a long while.  And then life got busy -- Len's school schedule became fuller, we made more frequent whirlwind weekend trips to visit my family, and I don't know what else -- and we were exhausted.  Combine that with darker, colder days, which drain all motivation, and we were consequently lazy when it came to conserving resources.  Also, due to Len's course load, our home computer has been on more often (for him), and our TV has been on more often (for me).

Anyway, now I am going to renew our commitment to reducing our electricity usage.  And my goal is to halve our usage.  That's right.  I know we can do it, too, because in April, May, and June 2011, our kWh usage ranged from 146 to 153.  We've used only half of what we're using now, and we will use that little again.

Related Posts:
Beyond the Day
The Earth Hour 2010 Report

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine Chocolate Bark


This recipe will be either really easy for you or really difficult, depending on the kind of cook you are. It has no measurements. I happen to think that makes it the easiest confection to confect, but some people panic without very specific instructions. Sorry, those people.

In its simplest form, chocolate bark is just chocolate chips (or baking chocolate squares), melted, spread out, and chilled back into solid form. But you have to add something to it. Otherwise you’ve just made a plain chocolate bar.

Nicole’s Valentine Chocolate Bark
Toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
Semi-sweet chocolate chips
Sea salt

Candy the orange peel: Scrape long strips of the peel off of the orange.* This is most easily done with the handy zester/garnishing tool I am wielding in the first picture, because this tool gets the peel off without much of the white pith.
*If all you have is an ordinary orange peeler made for separating the peel and pith together from the orange segments, you’ll have the extra steps of peeling the orange in large pieces, boiling the peel in plain water until it is soft, then using a spoon to scrape the pith off of the back of the peel, and then slicing the peel into thin strips. Now you may continue.

Put the strips in a small pot, squeeze the orange’s juice into the pot, and add equal parts water and sugar, enough that the peel can float around. Boil, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced significantly, about 20-30 minutes.

Using a fork, transfer the orange peel from the pot of syrup to a cutting board dusted with sugar. Roll or toss the peel around to get some of the sugar stuck to it. The peel will seem similar to a gummy worm at this point. Chop it into small pieces.

Make the chocolate bark: For this part, it is crucial to have everything ready before you melt the chocolate, or the chocolate will begin to solidify while you’re still chopping the walnuts or rummaging through your pantry looking for Craisins.

Have your candied orange peel, along with the craisins, walnuts and sea salt, ready nearby. Have a baking sheet out on the counter and lined with wax paper.

Pour the chocolate chips into a microwave-safe glass bowl and microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring after each interval, until the chocolate is all melted.

Dump the melted chocolate onto the wax-paper-lined baking sheet and spread it into a ¼-inch thick rectangle (thin enough to break into pieces when it’s solid but not so thin it will fall apart).

Immediately sprinkle the candied orange peel, chopped walnuts, and Craisins over the chocolate. Gently press them into the surface with the palm of your hand. Finely sprinkle a pinch of sea salt over the whole thing.

Put the baking sheet (with the chocolate on it) in the fridge for at least an hour. When the chocolate is fully solid, break the rectangle into pieces. (Just pick up an edge, peel the wax paper off of the bottom, and gently try to bend the chocolate – a section will snap off.)

Store the bark in the fridge; it can get slightly soft at room temperature and does melt in your hands.

BONUS: Use the leftover orange sugar syrup and the chocolate remaining on your spatula and in the glass bowl! Add some milk to the bowl and microwave it for a minute or two (just don’t let it boil). Scrape the chocolate down from the sides of the bowl, stirring until it melts off of the spatula and blends with the hot milk. Pour it out into a mug. Add the syrup leftover from candying the orange peel. Drink.

It should be obvious that this year’s Valentine’s Day dessert was far more successful than 2010’s Lollipies mostly in that it was, well, successful. But, my favorite Valentine dessert so far has been the peanut butter mousse I made five or six years ago. I must make it again someday.

Thursday, February 9, 2012



This is an adaptation of a recipe from one of our no-fail cookbooks, Home-Tested Recipe Collection. This book seems hard to find online, which is too bad for you, because almost every one of its recipes we've tried so far has been delicious as well as fairly inexpensive and easy to make. This particular recipe was an amazing surprise.  I thought, zucchini, taco flavors, really?  But, we tried it, and wow!  It's tough not to go back for seconds thirds.

Zucornchile is a good recipe for the summer when we have zucchini fresh out of the garden, but being a casserole, it's also a great one for winter, making use of those summer flavors we've stowed in the freezer.  Also because it's a casserole, it's easy to play with the amounts of the ingredients and double the recipe or simply make it cheesier or saucier—or beanier or zucchinier—as you like.

Here's the recipe, followed by a few notes on convenient variations/substitutions.

2 cups of canned tomato puree
2 tablespoons of chili powder
2 tablespoons tomato paste*
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder*
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
A couple dozen tortilla chips
3 cups thinly sliced zucchini*
1 1/2 cups of Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup corn kernels (canned, frozen or fresh)
1 can of black beans

Preheat oven to 350.  Grease a 2 1/2-quart baking dish.

In a medium sauce pan, combine tomato sauce, chili powder, tomato paste, vinegar, cumin, salt, garlic, and red pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer about 10 minutes.

In the baking dish, make a layer of chips, then zucchini, corn, beans, and finally cheese.  Repeat with one or two more layers, depending on how quickly you use up your ingredients. Pour the tomato sauce all over the top. Bake 30 minutes.

Serve hot.  It's good topped with sour cream and green onions, too.

Sometimes I omit the tomato paste just for convenience.  It does deepen the flavor of the sauce, but it's not essential.

Often we use fresh minced garlic instead of garlic powder.  Just triple the measurement.

You may want to steam your zucchini slices first, unless they really are very thinly sliced. A couple of minutes in the microwave should do it.  When I made this casserole this week, I used grated zucchini we had in our freezer.  Turns out frozen zucchini is mostly ice, so, let that stuff thaw and drain quite a bit before you throw it in the casserole.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Not Too Early

It's the first full week of February and currently below freezing outside (29 degrees at 8 a.m.), but the predicted high today is an unseasonable 43 degrees.  So if you ask me, "Isn't it a little early to be gardening?" I will answer, "No! It is not too early!  In just two weeks, I should start some seeds indoors."

I know this because of a fun little website a friend just recommended to us: You plug in your zip code and the things you want to plant, and a gardening calendar is created just for you. I imagine it is based on the average frost dates and average temperatures for your location, besides of course the climate needs and growing time of each plant.

I signed up for the free membership to Sprout Robot, so I get the calendar and email reminders when it's time to plant something. There are also memberships for purchase, which include organic heirloom seeds by mail; the price goes up depending on the size of the garden (basically, how many varieties of seeds you want).

In addition to the email reminders I will receive from Sprout Robot, I also have on hand a book we got for Christmas: The City Homesteader: Self-Sufficiency on Any Square Footage by Scott Meyer.  It's one of those fun-to-peruse books that has a lot of good ideas but doesn't go deep enough into any one topic or project for you to really, really know all you need to know about doing whatever it is you're reading about.  But, I did find useful its advice on which cool-weather crops to plant in the spring and which to save for the fall.  Certain crops will be ready for harvest in time to plant summer veggies in their place, while others are better to be planted just after the harvest of the summer crops, because they'll last a little ways into the winter (or will be ready very early the next spring if they are planted at the end of the sesason).  Combining the two planting time lines, I hope to make the most use of our small space at home and our larger but seasonally limited space in the community garden by most efficiently rotating what's growing from early spring to late fall or perhaps even early winter.

Of course, this all depends on my ability to stay on task with the gardening schedule, something I haven't been so strict about (due to busyness, laziness, absent-mindedness...) in the past few—well, ever.