Sunday, July 25, 2021

Recipe of the Month: Vegan Plum Ice Cream

My official Recipe of the Month for July is something a little out of the ordinary. Instead of my usual savory dishes, it's a dessert. But, true to the original purpose of the Fruit/Veggie of the Month challenge, which was to encourage me to eat more fruits and vegetables, it's a fruit-centered one: a vegan plum ice cream.

As I recounted last week, Brian and I have been dealing with a ridiculous volume of plums this year, far more than we've ever had before. So, in addition to eating them fresh with every day's lunch, we've been putting them into everything we could think of. After adding cut-up plums to salads and baking a plum crisp, Brian got the notion to try putting some in an ice cream. (This would also have the advantage of getting the barrel of the ice cream maker out of the freezer, making more space for further plum bounty.)

Of course, since we have gone mostly dairy-free at this point, it would have to be a vegan version of ice cream. Rather than look up a recipe online, which he deemed "too much pressure," he decided to play it by ear, combining ingredients in what seemed like appropriate quantities and seeing what happened. 

He started by cutting up plums into large chunks until he had about a cup of fruit. Then he mashed that lightly with about a third of a cup of sugar and added a teaspoon of lime juice to add a little more tartness. He let that sit in the fridge until it got juicy, then combined it with a can of coconut milk that he had chilled as thoroughly as he could manage — moving it back and forth between the fridge and the freezer and shaking it each time to keep the contents from separating. Then he just poured the resulting mixture into the chilled barrel, set up the ice cream maker, and let it run until the contents started to look more or less solidified.

Served up straight out of the machine, this wasn't too bad. It was rather tart, and it didn't really have the texture of ice cream; it was heavier and not as smooth, and the chunks of raw plum were a bit icy. But it wasn't an unreasonable facsimile. The real problem came when he put the remainder of it into the freezer. Just like the time we tried to make homemade two-ingredient Dole Whip from coconut milk and pineapple chunks, the mixture pretty much froze into a solid block of ice. You couldn't really get a spoon into it; the best you could do was scrape some off the surface, and what you got was an icy, grainy mixture that wasn't like ice cream at all.

So this particular version of plum ice cream can't really be called a success. However, the concept isn't necessarily a no-go. Since today happens to be our anniversary, and since one of the rare exceptions to our mostly dairy-free diet is a yearly purchase of cream for our anniversary cake, we happen to have half a pint of cream left over in the fridge that we'll need to use up before it goes bad. So Brian is thinking of trying a small batch of plum ice cream with the real cream, just as a proof of concept.

Of course, we came up with this idea at a point when we've actually managed to use up or give away nearly all of our plums. Of the 50 or so pounds we picked off the Opal tree, we now have only half a dozen left in the fridge. There are plenty more on the Mount Royal and Golden Gage trees, but they're are still at least a week away from being ready to harvest, and the cream isn't likely to last that long.

Fortunately, as part of our plum-preserving efforts, Brian did freeze one small batch of the Opal plums. He figures he can use about half a cup of those for his next attempt at plum ice cream — probably cooking them first this time to see if that improves the texture. And if that works okay, maybe we can take another crack at it using coconut milk (which is what most vegan ice cream recipes seem to call for) rather than coconut cream. Perhaps this lighter liquid will do a better job of holding air than the denser coconut cream.

If this works, you may be seeing a revised version of vegan plum ice cream in a future post. If it doesn't, oh well — as we're learning, there are lots of other things to do with plums.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Money Crashers: 2 new articles

Money Crashers has just posted two new articles of mine, both on appropriately ecofrugal topics. The first one is about how to remodel a bathroom on a budget. In the piece, I drew on my own experience redoing the downstairs bath on a budget of under $1,000 (a project I learned was technically a renovation, rather than a remodel, since no walls or fixtures were moved). But I also gleaned ideas from other budget bath remodels covered in This Old House, as well as some advice from experts. These sources yielded tips on how to save on every part of a bath remodel: tile, fixtures, lighting, countertops, cabinetry, hardware, and most of all, labor. (Spoiler alert: DIYing as many jobs as possible can cut your costs by as much as 50%.)

8 Ways to Save Money on a Bathroom Remodel or Renovation

The second article is about a topic dear to ecofrugal hearts: getting stuff for free. As it turns out, if the stars align just right, it's possible to find nearly anything at no cost, from necessities like food and clothing to fun stuff like travel and entertainment. Obviously, it's unlikely you'll be able to get all the items on my list for free, but there's an excellent chance you can get some of them for free, and free up a nice chunk of cash in the process.

16 Things You Can Get for Free – How to Get Free Stuff

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Plum loco

Over the past few weeks, Brian and I have been keeping an anxious eye on our plums — specifically, the ones on the Opal tree, which are the first to ripen. We had already manged to harvest several, but there were still a lot of half-red ones on the tree. We know from experience that if we pick them too soon, they won't ripen indoors, and they'll just go to waste. But we've also discovered that if we leave them too late, something else is liable to get to them before we do. 

This year, we seem to have done a fairly good job foiling the squirrels with our paper collars coated in Tree Tanglefoot. Unfortunately, other pests have stepped in to take over the assault where the squirrels left off. Last week, I spotted a doe in the front yard calmly helping herself to both plums and foliage, and I got within about a foot of her before she finally decided to start ambling away. Fortunately, she could only reach the parts of the tree within three or four feet of the ground, but that limitation doesn't apply to the birds, which have taken to pecking at the plums on the topmost branches and then dropping them about half-eaten to the ground. This makes a huge mess of the yard, and while the smallest groundhog sometimes comes through and munches on the fallen ones, he doesn't do it regularly enough to clean them up entirely. (We even caught one human red-handed in the act of plundering our plums, loading up a bag she had brought with her. When Brian called to her to stop, she insisted on giving us some money to pay for them, so I guess we've technically sold our first home-grown crop.)

Last week, after Brian and I had spent a laborious hour cleaning up fallen plums in the yard only to find it covered in corpses again by nightfall, Brian finally blinked. He went out and gathered all the plums he could reach without a ladder that were ripe enough to come loose when pulled. The next day, he fetched a stepladder and went for the ones slightly higher up, while I roamed around below gathering up the fallen ones and setting aside those that looked like they might still have some edible material on them. By the time he was done, he had picked all of these — 47 pounds in total.

This presented us with a new problem. We knew we couldn't possibly eat that many plums ourselves before they went bad, so we would have to either preserve them or share them or, most likely, both. We had some success canning plum jam in 2019, but the crop we got then was nowhere near this size. If we wanted to preserve all these, we'd have to make a lot of jam — and this was only the first tree's worth. (It is possible to freeze plums, but with only our little fridge freezer, we just don't have the space to store many.)

Brian had already picked up some Pomona's Universal Pectin, the variety that works best for low-sugar canning, at the George Street Co-Op in New Brunswick. Unfortunately, they had only one package — enough for maybe four batches. Yesterday, he spent a very sweaty morning putting up his first batch of eight half-pint jars in 90-degree heat, using the recipe that came with the pectin, which called for very little sugar and quite a lot of lemon juice. Right now, he's working on a second batch using Kenji Lopez-Alt's recipe from Serious Eats, which is lower in lemon and higher in sugar (though still much lower than most recipes made with plain pectin). But at four pints per batch, the equivalent of about four pounds of plums, four batches won't make much of a dent in our 47 pounds of plums. And even if we can find more of the Pomona's pectin somewhere, we just can't process them fast enough to turn the lot into jam before they spoil.

So basically, in addition to eating all the plums we can swallow ourselves over the next week or so, we're going to start feeding them to pretty much everyone we come into contact with. We'll put out a big bowl of fresh plums for our RPG group on Tuesday, Brian will take in a bunch to work to offer to his coworkers, and anything that's still left on Thursday will go with us to Morris dance practice, which is finally resuming after a 16-month hiatus. And if there are still plums left over, we'll drop by my parents' place on the way home to spread the wealth around still more.

And all this is just for one tree's worth of plums. The Mount Royal plums, the blue ones, are just starting to ripen now, so we'll probably have to go through the whole process again with those, and possibly yet again with the Golden Gage plums after that. And by the time we're done with all that, we'll probably never want to see another plum again.

On the plus side, it does give us an early start on our holiday gift shopping. No matter what else we may or may not find, we'll have enough home-canned jam for everyone.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Oh, deer!

Over the years, Brian and I have faced a variety of pest threats in our vegetable garden. We had to go through several iterations to develop a fence capable of keeping out groundhogs, and we gave up on eggplant in 2012 after losing our entire crop — four tiny eggplants no bigger than my thumb — to squirrels. We've battled with varying degrees of success against rats and, of course, against the pesky squash vine borers that infest our zucchini. (We're hoping that we've finally managed to foil them this year with Bt spray.)

But the one four-legged pest we've always thought our garden was fairly safe from was deer. Not only was the garden itself fenced against groundhogs, but it was in a back yard surrounded by four to six feet of chain link fence on all four sides. And, on top of that, deer just didn't tend to wander into our neighborhood, which is about a mile from the park and wooded areas they call home. In the 14 years since buying this place, we'd seen deer only a handful of times on our property, and only once in the back yard.

But alas, that is no longer the case. Over the past few years, the deer population in our area has steadily grown — a trend that was apparently accelerated by the pandemic, which cut down on their main predator (traffic). And as they grew more numerous, they started ranging farther afield in source of food. So in the past year or so, it hasn't been uncommon to see deer walking through residential neighborhoods and browsing in yards. We've spotted them several times in our front yard eating grass or browsing on the lower leaves of the plum trees, but they didn't impinge on the vegetable garden until last month, when Brian went out to water and caught one red-hoofed eating our beans. When it saw him, it leapt over both the garden fence and the chain link fence behind that in a single bound, as easily as you might step over a crack in the sidewalk.

It's not clear how long the deer had been out there, but it had managed to do quite a bit of damage. It ate all the pods off our snap pea vines and most of the vines themselves, effectively eliminating any chance of our getting more of a crop than the three measly ounces we'd managed to harvest so far. It also ate quite a bit of lettuce and nibbled off the tops of a bunch of the green bean plants and a good portion of one pepper plant. The only things left unscathed were the prickly squash and cucumber vines, the highly aromatic herbs and onions, and the tomato plants, which I guess just don't taste very good.

So at this point, two things were clear. First, if we wanted to have any sort of harvest at all, we'd have to find some way to keep deer out of the garden. And second, trying to fence them out of the entire back yard was more or less useless. The chain link fence was no barrier to them at all, and even if we were willing to go to the trouble and expense of installing a stockade fence high enough to deter them, it would block out the sunlight our plants need.

Since our makeshift invisible deer fence has been pretty successful at protecting the flowers in our front yard, I was all for trying to figure out a way to add something like that around the garden enclosure. But Brian was convinced that wouldn't work. In the first place, the posts at the corners of the existing fence aren't tall enough, and even if we could extend them somehow, we'd have to leave a gap where the gate is so we could get in and out, which would also leave an opening for the deer. And besides, they would still be able to see the lower portion of the fence, so they wouldn't hesitate to jump over it.

Brian thought our best strategy would be to block their access to the back yard from the side yard. Although deer could get into our back yard from either of the neighbors' yards or from the parking lot behind us, he thought the side yard was probably their primary route of entry. There's only one barrier for them to jump over there (the garden gate), and it's not a particularly high one. But what could we add to that area that would be a barrier to the deer, but not to us?

Brian's makeshift attempt at a solution was to grab a handful of long bamboo stakes we'd originally bought for staking the taller plants in our flowerbed (spoiler alert: that didn't work) and use them to increase the height of the fence in the side yard. He did this by threading them into the existing fence along a diagonal, creating a crisscross pattern on top. This design raised the height of the fence by a foot or so while still allowing the garden gate to swing open. The flimsy stakes wouldn't actually be much of a barrier to a determined deer, but he hoped they'd form enough of a visual barrier to deter them from attempting the jump.

Alas, this was not successful. Early this morning, he spotted another deer in the garden and ran downstairs to chase it away (first arming himself with one of our patio chairs, lion-tamer-style). To evade him, the deer first jumped right over the remaining chairs and table on the patio, then sailed over the garden gate, right between the gaps in the bamboo stakes. He has since attempted to reinforce the crisscross pattern with a few more stakes pointing straight upward, but frankly, I'm not optimistic.

So I'm now looking into other strategies for keeping deer away. An article at Savvy Gardening proposes several strategies:

  1. Plant only deer-resistant plants. Since we're selecting plants on the basis of what we want to eat (and are capable of growing), that's not a good approach for us.
  2. Use deer repellent sprays. The problem with these is that, in addition to needing to be reapplied "religiously," they generally smell vile and would be equally effective at deterring us from entering our own garden to water, weed, and harvest. Some that don't smell too bad are bars of soap, bags of human hair, and predator urine, but the author says these also don't work that well.
  3. Scare them away. Shiny and noisy things don't work for long, but the author says motion-activated sprinklers will genuinely freak the deer out. But they'd also be a big hassle for us to install and move around frequently as suggested, not to mention we'd frequently get sprayed by them ourselves. And they'd use a lot of water.
  4. Build a fence that works. This could mean:
  • A fence they can't see through, since deer will only jump a fence if they can see what's on the other side. This doesn't work for us, because it would create too much shade.
  • A barrier of "large, irregularly shaped rocks," which deer don't like to walk on. The problem here is that we're not that crazy about walking on them ourselves, and we would need to in order to enter the garden.
  • An electric fence. Not crazy about this option, since it's a lot of work and also poses a hazard for us and other wildlife.
  • A double fence. This seems like the most feasible approach. Basically, it would involve erecting a second fence four to five feet outside the existing garden enclosure. A single four-foot fence isn't a barrier for deer, but two fences that height are too much to clear in a single bound and too close together for two.

So our next garden project is likely to be the construction of an outer fence, probably just a simple one made from posts and deer netting or chicken wire. This one won't need to keep out groundhogs, so it won't need a skirt or a baffle like our current groundhog fence. It also won't need to go all the way around the garden on all four sides, since the shed and the rear fence form a barrier on two sides. We can just run the fencing from the back fence to one post on the left side, across to a second post on the right side, and then back as far as the shed. And, of course, we'll need a second gate in front of the first so we can get through.

This is a big job, so we probably won't get started on it until next weekend at the earliest. Watch this space for news of how the construction goes, and how successful it is (or isn't) at foiling deer intruders.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Money Crashers: 23 Ikea Shopping Tips & Tricks to Save Money

This is a companion piece to my other IKEA shopping article published back in April. Originally, in fact, it was written as part of that article, but my editors decided the piece was too long and split this part off. So now, the first part tells you about what to buy at IKEA (and what not to buy), and this one is about how to shop at IKEA to get the most value from your trip — in terms of time, money, and enjoyment.

23 Ikea Shopping Tips & Tricks to Save Money

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Recipe of (Last) Month: Grilled Tofu Skewers

Last month's unusual midyear trip to Indiana caused a bit of a disruption in my blogging schedule. My June Gardeners' Holiday entry was a week late, and I didn't manage to fit in a Recipe of the Month entry at all.

But that doesn't mean I didn't fit in a new recipe. We actually got one on June 30 — just under the wire for the month, but too late for me to blog about it in June. So I'm going to cheat a bit and make this my Recipe of the Month entry for last month, and I'll make a point of fitting one more in before the end of July.

This particular recipe was one that showed up in my weekly newsletter from It Doesn't Taste Like Chicken: Grilled Tofu Skewers. However, we didn't get to it right away because it involved grilling, and we needed to wait for a day when both our schedules and the weather allowed for firing up the grill. And, since the recipe calls for marinating the tofu, we also needed enough lead time for that step.

Aside from that, the dish is simple enough. The marinade has just five ingredients: soy sauce, water, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and agave or maple syrup (though we didn't have either of these, so Brian substituted brown sugar). The tofu has to be pressed and sliced before going into the marinade, but the recipe is very flexible about how long it stays there — anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 days.

The other change Brian made to the dish was to cook it on an actual charcoal grill. The recipe says you can use either a barbecue or a grill pan, as if the only purpose of grilling were to create horizontal char marks, but cooking over charcoal or wood adds a distinct smoky flavor to the other flavors of the dish. Along with the tofu skewers, he cooked up three small zucchini, sliced lengthwise into quarters and marinated briefly in a mixture of soy sauce with onion and garlic powder, and two potatoes, cut into large round disks for quicker cooking. I thought I had taken a picture of this feast as it came off the grill, but I can't find it now on either my camera or my phone, so maybe I failed to engage the shutter. I'll just have to leave it to your imagination to picture the platter, nicely piled with the zucchini, potatoes, and tofu skewers, all cooked to an appetizing light brown.

The one component of the meal not cooked on the grill was the peanut sauce. It was supposed to be a spicy peanut sauce, spiked with Sriracha or another hot sauce, but we didn't have that, and as I'm not a big fan of spicy hot foods anyway, Brian didn't want to buy a bottle just for this recipe. He briefly contemplated adding some of our panang curry sauce, but he decided that probably wasn't the right sort of flavor. So he just combined the other five ingredients, which we always have on hand: coconut milk, natural peanut butter, soy sauce, garlic powder, and lime juice. The resulting sauce was surprisingly thick, too thick to drizzle over the tofu skewers with a spoon, so we had to scoop some out onto our plates and dip the tofu sticks into them. (Our tofu sticks were about one and a half ounces each, and I found two and a half of them to be a satisfying portion.)

In terms of flavor, the tofu itself wasn't that remarkable. Although we'd marinated it for a full day, the pressed tofu hadn't soaked up much of the marinade, so except for the outside, it just tasted like tofu — which is to say, not like much of anything. But the texture was nice and firm, and it made a good vehicle for the peanut sauce, which had a vaguely Thai kind of flavor with its blend of coconut, peanut, and lime. It would have been still more interesting if we'd had some hot sauce to add, and I think it would be worth buying some if we make this again. We could always cut the amount to avoid overpowering my touchy taste buds.

Which brings me to the key question: Are we likely to make this again? My guess is yes. It's a handy, not-too-complicated way to use up extra tofu, which is something we have around fairly often, and it's also a reasonable item to put on the grill that isn't meat or one of the many rather pricey (and mostly not that satisfying) meat substitutes designed for that purpose. The one change we'll probably make to the recipe next time is to make a smaller batch of peanut sauce, since we had quite a lot of it left over. Brian ended up consuming the rest as a dip for pretzels and, when he ran out of pretzels, matza.

And, next time we make it, I'll also try to make sure I get a proper picture of it.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Gardeners' Holidays 2021: Berry Fest

Technically, the Gardeners' Holiday for June 2021 should have been last Sunday, on the summer solstice itself. But we spent that whole day out of town celebrating Fathers' Day with my dad, so we weren't able to spend any time in the garden or eat anything harvested from it. So this year's Berry Fest is coming a week late.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of raspberries left on the canes to celebrate. We're harvesting between half a cup and a cup per day right now, and there are still lots of berries left that have yet to ripen. We'll probably be gathering in this first crop for another couple of weeks at least before it peters out, and then we'll have the second harvest to enjoy in September. In fact, if anything, the canes might be growing a little too well; the area inside our raspberry trellis is turning into a bit of a jungle. Brian went out today and pulled a bunch of stray suckers that had sprouted outside the boundaries of the bed, but when it's time to prune out last year's canes, we'll probably have to remove some of this year's as well just so we can reach everything.

We also have a new berry harvest to celebrate this year. Despite the fact that two of our honeyberry bushes perished last winter and we only replaced one of them, we have already managed to harvest about half a cup of berries off the four survivors. The bird netting we put over the plants seems to be succeeding in keeping away marauders (both two-legged and four-legged), but the gaps in it are big enough to allow us to slip a couple of fingers in to pick the berries that appear biggest and ripest. We aren't yet getting a large enough crop to justify taking the netting off completely and covering the ground with cardboard so we can shake the berries down onto it, but according to the FAQ at Honeyberry USA, we can expect to reach that point in another year or two.

And, to round out this fruit fest, we're beginning to get our first few plums of the season. Most of the ones on the trees are still green, and most of the ones that have fallen on the ground haven't been in any shape for eating, but a few of the ones we've gathered from around the base of the Opal appeared to be full-sized and close enough to ripeness to make them worth trying. We also picked up a bunch of slightly smaller or harder ones that looked like they had at least begun to blush before they fell, so we are keeping those outside the fridge to see if they ripen up enough to eat. 

At any rate, it is a reassuring sign that there are plums on the trees that are surviving long enough to ripen. Despite weekly spraying with copper fungicide, we haven't completely licked the brown rot; we're still seeing quite a few plums either drop prematurely or turn into brownish "mummies" on the
branch. But at least there are some that have stayed healthy and haven't been toted away by squirrels. I'm not counting my plums before they're hatched, but there is at least a chance that the harvest from the three trees — first the Opal, then the Mount Royal, and finally the Golden Gage — will keep us in fresh fruit until our second crop of raspberries comes in.

As it happens, we're not actually doing anything special with all this fruit today in honor of the Gardeners' Holiday. We haven't yet managed to find an ideal alternative to whipped cream for a raspberry fool, and failing that, the most satisfying thing I could think of to do with all these berries was to eat them straight up. But we are including a little of our garden produce in tonight's dinner: some summer lettuce for a salad and one tiny fingerling zucchini, the first of the season, which we can fry up with a little garlic as an appetizer. And the raspberries will get their star turn next month, as Brian has already turned one batch of them into jam for this year's anniversary cake.

While he was at it, in fact, he even made some jam from berries that weren't actually grown on our property. He has now gone back to working on campus part of the time, and one afternoon during his lunch break he decided to wander off in search of the nearby pawpaw patch he discovered a few years back. The pawpaws weren't ripe yet, but he discovered there was a large mulberry tree right next to them and gleaned about a pint of fresh berries from it. (Pro tip: full-strength vinegar turns out to be good for removing mulberry stains from a handkerchief that's been used as a berry container.) After we scarfed these down, he decided to go back for a second batch and try turning it into jam. He didn't can it, just cooked it down and stuck it in the fridge for future use. So if we really want a fruit-based dessert to make our Berry Fest dinner complete, we can always try a bit of that on some toast.