Let Them Eat Cake

It doesn’t seem like there anything about bread that should make it difficult to get farm-to-table local bread around here.  And yet.

We’ve purchased a couple of loaves from local bakeries – the most recent being a loaf of tasty whole wheat made by All You Knead bakers down in Beacon – which have been very enjoyable, but have led us into two familiar stumbling blocks in our localism challenge: it’s not always clear how many of the ingredients are local and it ain’t cheap.

The website for All You Need says they make their products with “locally-sourced” ingredients.  Good to know, though some of their breads include olives or pecans and at least one features grains “from across New York State”.  So, how much of what goes into the bread we bought is as local as we’d like it to be?

Then there’s the issue of cost.  The All You Knead loaf was the cheaper of the local breads we’ve bought recently at $5.  Not outlandish, but more expensive than our prior habit of sticking exclusively to the day-old rack or the 5-for-$2 Portuguese rolls at the supermarket near our house.

So how do we ensure we’re getting bread from truly local ingredients and that we’re not finding yet another way to increase our food budget through localism?  Well, we could make it ourselves.  We just picked up  a couple bags of flour from Wild Hive Farm, which is based a mere 14 miles away in Clinton Corners.  They sell their local flour  either by special order or at a number of local shops (we picked it up at a local farm store/gun shop).

We got two 1.5lb bags – one of corn meal and one of whole wheat – for $6 apiece.  We used it to make some really tasty cornbread, but at $4/lb, it was definitely a pricier flour than the King Arthur we often get, not to mention the supermarket brand.  And if a loaf of bread uses about a pound of flour, we’re already pushing the cost of the store-bought in cost of flour.  Even if the costs of the other ingredients (local salt, anybody?) are marginal, we’re not saving any real money against the nice artisinal stuff from the store.

So then the next question is whether we can save significant money buying the local flour direct from the farm and in larger quantities and store it over a longer term.

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A Mostly Local Grocery Trip

Yesterday I took my first trip to the grocery store where I was trying to shop as exclusively local as I could.  We’re lucky to have a locally-owned grocery store chain – Adams Fairacre Farm – that stocks a pretty good amount of local goods.  Up until now, our grocery strategy has generally been to shop at Adams for produce (aside from what we get from the CSA), dairy, eggs, and bread and then to one of several supermarkets for the few canned goods we buy and dry staples like beans, rice, and flour.  Adams sells all this other stuff as well, but in our experience all lot of it tends to be “gourmet” brands that are significantly more expensive.

Our pantry is pretty well stocked right now and we’re still flush with CSA veggies, so this wasn’t going to be a huge shopping trip.  Here’s how we got:

Three and a half pounds of peaches, which were marked “Local” but I don’t know where exactly from.  There are a few peach orchards nearby, so…here’s hoping.

A dozen eggs from Feather Ridge Farm in Elizaville – about 30 miles north of us.

A gallon of apple cider from Minard Farms in Clintondale – right across the river and not 10 miles away.  This is a replacement for the Apple & Eve organic apple juice we were buying for the kid before.  I turns out the Apple & Eve Corporation is based in Port Washington on Long Island, but from their website FAQ it seems like they have a global supply chain:

At certain times of the year, our apple juice is made from apples grown in the United States. At other times, when domestically grown fruit is in short supply or the quality is not up to our standards, we use apple concentrate of the highest quality made in the United States or imported from one of several countries.

So, Minard is a lot closer although sort of a trade-off in that as far as  I can tell they aren’t organic.  I guess this is kind of a classic conundrum in terms  of sustainable eating.  We’ve never been exclusively organic shoppers, but we do try to head in that direction for stuff the kid is eating.

A loaf of rye bread from Silver Bell Bakery in Queens. 82 miles away and probably not a safe bet that it’s made from locally grown ingredients.

A small piece of cheese from Sprout Creek Farm, which is very local (and a nonprofit) and makes really terrific cheese.  But at $21/lb, it ain’t cheap.

Since all three of us like our cheese, I decided to supplement with some less expensive cheddar.  Adams sells Adams New York Farmstand Cheddar for $6/lb.  This I asked about and it turns out that it’s not a store brand – it’s made in Adams, New York which is about 25o miles from Poughkeepsie.  Not really our ideal in terms of local, but if the average meal travels 1,500-ish miles, I guess 250 mile cheese isn’t the end of the world for now.

And…a bunch of bananas.  The kid eats one pretty much every day and they’re the only food he asks for verbally at this point, so that’s an area of compromise for us.

$32.77 total spent and definitely not a full week’s worth of groceries even with the CSA veggies added in.  I’m not so sure whether buying local made too much difference in the pricing on this trip.  I think I just bought a bunch of stuff that’s sort of expensive by nature.  For example, the Sprout Creek cheese was the most expensive item ($7.26) but I think that’s more about quality than location since imported artisinal cheese is often just as expensive.

It also wasn’t difficult to source what we needed locally, though that’s probably going to change when the veggie growing season is over, when we need to buy staples like oats and dried beans, and if we look for bread that isn’t just baked locally, but also made of local ingredients.

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Local Sugar Substitutes: Looking at Stevia

In our last post, commenter Theresa asked “have you thought about growing (or using locally grown) stevia?” Well, it just so happens that we have access to some stevia that our CSA grows in their meditation herb garden! In addition to some rhubarb, nasturtiums and lemongrass, I cut a bit of stevia to play with at home last weekend.


Stevia is typically grown in South America, and while its extract is about 150-200 times sweeter than sugar, it does not raise blood insulin levels. According to Wikipedia, it has “been used for more than 1,500 years by the Guaraní peoples of South America, who called it ka’a he’ê (“sweet herb”). The leaves have been used traditionally for hundreds of years in both Brazil and Paraguay to sweeten local teas and medicines.” I also learned that it was banned in the U.S. for a while and the FDA still does not approve of using “whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extracts.” This post via FoodBabe goes into a lot of detail about what the FDA deems “safe” in Stevia on the market, so I’m not going to go into the politics. I’m gonna trust that it’s been used for a while elsewhere and just leave it at that.

Stevia is pretty easy to grow and is a perennial, so we could even add it to our herb garden if we can find a good way to use it because it is SWEET. Like crazy aspartame sweet. I took a nibble of a raw leaf and thought I had just eaten about 5 packets of Sweet n Low straight. Luckily, I was able to get Phil’s reaction on camera.

A video posted by Minnisingh (@minnisingh) on

Since I already got the leaves, I figured I may as well dehydrate them and grind into a powder. The smell of the drying leaves was pretty awful — like hanging steviadryingout in a closet full of mothballs. This post doesn’t really give this plant too many kudos, does it? Anyways, I am now in possession of a tiny amount of dried stevia leaves. Researching this stuff some more, the amount of dried stevia varies widely. One site says 2 tablespoons equals 1 cup of sugar, another says 1 tablespoon and another says one teaspoon will do the trick. I suspect I will have to play around to determine how sweet my leaves are and see if I can find any good recipes, because it does have a funky taste. A lot of places recommend making extract or a liquid sweetener, as it reduces the funky bitterness. I think that’s what I’ll attempt after gathering more leaves. For now, I’ll just gaze at this jar of powder and ponder.


All of those leaves and smelliness and THIS is what I get.

Does anybody have recommendations for recipes using powdered stevia?

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The Price of Sweet

Within the first five pages of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s locavore memoir, Plenty, there’s a rueful exchange about what the authors will do without sugar where they unconvincingly telling each other they’ll just use honey.  Though we’re not planning to cut ourselves off from sugar altogether, we’re confronting a similar dilemma about finding an affordable local alternative for more of our sweetening needs.

At a trip today to our local organic market, we picked up  some of the local maple syrup that they sell in bulk.  We weren’t under any illusions that maple was going to be anywhere as cheap as sugar, but ideally being able to skip the packaging might bring the price down somewhat.

We ended up with a majestic quarter milk bottle of Grade B for a little under $6.

mapleThe bulk syrup was selling for $11.25/lb, which sort of seemed like a lot, but is actually considerably cheaper than the cost for a small bottle from Crown Maple, the area’s most high-profile syrup producer.  They sell a 375mL bottle for $17, which comes out to about $15.20/lb.   Crown also sells syrup by the gallon for $95, which comes out to $8.41/lb. – a clear winner in the price department, assuming you’re willing and able to shell out $95 for maple syrup.

But then what does a pound of sugar cost?  We often get a 4lb. bag for between $3 and $4, so that’s about $0.87/lb.  I’ve read in some places that when using maple as a replacement for sugar, you cut the amount by 25% (you supposedly get a less sweet recipe, but with a richer flavor), but even if you get more bang for your buck with each ounce, that still leaves you paying at least seven times as much for local maple.

Depending on how much baking or jam-making we’re doing, we can go through a 4lb. bag of sugar in a month.  Assuming for the moment that maple can always be an appropriate substitute for sugar we would potentially be spending $302 each year on maple syrup instead of $42 on sugar.  While the extra $260 a year wouldn’t be the end of the world in and of itself, but it doesn’t seem like a great idea to increase our food budget so much just for sweetener.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find a compromise.  For example:

  • We aim to cut our sugar purchasing in half (no more than one 4lb. bag every two months)
  • We buy a gallon of maple syrup to get the better price and use that in place of sugar whenever we can (and also honey, which is produced by several local farms and seems to sell for $6-7/lb)
  • To avoid breaking the bank we just use less sweetener in our food, we use less sweetener overall.  We probably need to set a clear budget for this to actually make it work.  Could we make it through the year with only one gallon of maple, five pounds of honey, and eight pounds of sugar ($132 total)?  That budget would halve our annual sweetener use from 48 pounds to 24 while more than tripling our current sugar spending estimate.

This is one of the no doubt many situations where the “easy” solution to buying local is going to mean paying more.  Those dollars will support a better kind of economic system and often mean buying better quality stuff, but it won’t be sustainable for our household budget to just keep taking on increases in our living expenses.  We’ll have to find the right mix of strategies that allow us to save money by buying local (like our CSA) and ways that we can just buy less stuff to offset the places where local products are going to cost us more.

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What’s There to Eat?

The most obvious place to start for figuring out the rules of our localism challenge is food.  First, there are plenty of resources out there about how to maintain a locavore diet.  Second, the Hudson Valley is flush with local agriculture.  And third, we’re already members of a local CSA where we get essentially all of our produce during the growing season (being vegetarians, produce makes up a big part of our diet).

Even so, becoming a 100% locavore household is hard to envision.  Our weekly shopping isn’t heavy on packaged or processed foods, but there are still  all sorts of things that are part of our regular diet that can’t be grown locally (until climate change makes the Hudson Valley subtropical).  For example: coffee, olive oil, citrus, bananas, peanut butter, sugar, rice, mango, and avocados.

And then there are things like pasta where the raw ingredients probably are grown around here but the finished product you find in the store is never made nearby.  So we’d have to either find out where the couple of pasta companies that are relatively local (it seems like there are at least two) or make our own, assuming we can get local local flour (the one local grain mill I knew of is now closed).  And there are no doubt dozens of challenges like this.

All in all, taking on a cold turkey 100-mile diet would likely be a difficult and short-lived project for us.  Since we’re aiming for more of a long-term lifestyle change than an endurance test, we’re going to take a gradual approach in shifting more of our dollars toward the local food system.  We’ll figure out case by case how to substitute local alternatives for the long-distance food we buy now and try to find reasonable compromises for some exotics we feel we can’t do without (like coffee for the adults, and bananas for the kid).

Since we’re at the height of the growing season, our big push right now is to preserve as much of our CSA bounty as we can so that we can continue to rely on local produce through the winter.

PFP peppers

Today’s take included pounds of hot peppers and tomatoes.  The tomatoes ended up as 4 quarts and a pint of sauce, plus 6 pints of tomato jam.  The peppers are going to turn into sriracha and maybe some homemade pepper flakes.  We (Tina, really) also made tomatillo salsa and baba ganoush, but those things aren’t shelf stable so they won’t last us into the winter.

More updates soon on home preserving and trying to figure out how to get local flour and pasta.

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After a few failed attempts at jump-starting this site as a home renovation blog, we’ve decided it’s time to move on to something different.

While we’re still doing a lot of work on the house, much of that work is extremely slow moving and difficult to pin down in a way that was easy for us to keep writing about.  Not to mention that while the ins and outs of our duct insulation is a gripping topic for us, it’s likely not such a relatable topic if you’re not going through a renovation project.  On top of it all, having a kid and starting a small business have made it difficult for us to find time to update regularly.

Still, we did at one time successfully maintain a blog with a pretty active readership so it seemed like we should be able to figure out something to do here.  One thing about 30 Bucks a Week that made it easy to keep writing was that we were challenging ourselves to change a part of our everyday lifestyle.  The project required consistent planning, which it turn gave us fodder for blog posts.  A new personal challenge seemed like a good place to start for the future of this blog.

Building on the elements DIY and sustainability that were part of 30/Week, our plan for Minnisingh is focused on localism.  In short, we’re going to try to engage as much as possible in local systems, institutions, and people to provide the goods and services we need.

There are a lot of advantages – economic, environmental, social – to turn to local resources first, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward path. Unlike 30/Week, this isn’t a project with one simple rule (don’t spend more than $30/week on groceries).   This challenge has the potential to touch essentially every part of our lives and a big part of this new challenge is going to be figuring  out what we want the rules to be.  There are all sorts of criteria we could use to evaluate the things we do and don’t want to buy.

How much do we care whether the locally-made bread we buy at the locally-owned market is made with flour from halfway across the country? At the moment, the idea of cutting coffee, chocolate, citrus, and olive oil out of our diets seems pretty much like a non-starter, but maybe if we challenged ourselves to use local alternatives for a week we might learn something.  And there will almost certainly be times when we have to figure out how we want to weigh local provenance against other important criteria – not least of all cost.

And how close is local? Fifty miles from home?

We have a lot to figure out.

We do have a couple legs up as we get started.  We’re members of an amazing CSA whose farm is located a 10 minute bike ride from our house and we’re looking forward to diving back into writing about cooking as we enjoy the season’s harvest and work to preserve as much of it as we can so that we can rely on this ultra-local fruits and veggies as much as possible over the winter.

There are also a bunch of folks focused on building local economies nearby, including groups dedicated to supporting local agriculturerevitalizing downtown Poughkeepsie, building a local currency, and encouraging localism generally.

We’re excited about this new experiment.  We know it’s going to be a long-term project and it won’t always be easy, but we’re looking forward to finding out what we can learn from the challenge and for the prospect of connecting more with the community we joined when we moved here three years ago.

Stick with us!

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Garden Fence!

Our first big garden infrastructure project is done!  We now have a split rail fence surrounding the north half of the property, which includes our main garden area as well as the little strip behind the house where we eventually want to put in a patio.

We had been thinking this could be a DIY project, but given how visible the fence is for us and all our neighbors, we didn’t really trust ourselves to be able to install it as neatly as we would have liked and still have it done in enough time to get some use out of it this year.  Plus, fence rails and posts are not cheap even for a DIY project.  So we ended up going with professionals and we’re pretty happy with how it turned out overall.

The rear gate at the site of our future patio.

The rear gate at the site of our future patio.

The primary purpose of the fence is critter control, though to that end it doesn’t offer much of a physical barrier.  Our fence is only 3′ high – mostly because town code only allows a 3.5′ tall fence anywhere between the front profile of the house and the street frontage, where about half our fence is located.  Definitely jumpable for a deer if it really wants to get in, but our hope is that the fence will still work as a psychological deer deterrent given that there are plenty of other ways to cross through the neighborhood without hopping a fence.  Anyway, we wouldn’t really have wanted to install at 10′ deer fence even if the town allowed it – or we could afford it.  If it turns out deer are jumping the fence, we can always attach some tall trellising (or tall stakes with wire run between) that can be easily removed if somebody complains.

Attached to the wooden rails, the fence has welded wire (like vinyl-coated chicken wire) that keeps smaller critters from coming through and also makes it a relatively effective dog fence so Penny can have a place to run around outside without being hooked up to a lead.  Again, she could probably jump it if she really wanted to, but so far she hasn’t tried.  Also, we’ll eventually want to dig a little trench along the fence line and lay down some additional wire to keep critters from digging under.

The front gate - easy access from the Bilco.

The front gate – easy access from the Bilco.

In addition to a pest and pet barrier, the fence is also the first big design element of the garden and I’m finding it makes it easier for me to visualize how to lay out the rest of the space.


The edge of the driveway, where we’ll eventually have some deer-proof hedges on the outside of the fence and some currant and gooseberry bushed on the inside.

Next up – soil improvement and planting some edible shrubs (i.e. berry bushes) and a fruit tree.

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2015 Garden Season Launch

With most of our attention focused on the kid last spring and summer, our 2014 garden expansion ended up being a bit of a bust.  This year rather than trying to make the garden bigger, we’re focused on some fundamental improvements to make it better.

The first task here is soil improvement.  We’re staring with heavily compacted, gravel-filled suburban lawn and last year’s half-hearted sheet mulching wasn’t nearly enough to transform it into healthy garden soil.  This year, the sheet mulched bed is getting tilled up using our newly acquired Rogue field hoe and then planted with a green manure cover crop.   Meanwhile, the raised bed soil’s getting supplemented with our first solid bunch of homemade compost.

IMG_7124After some reinforcement, the soil sifter I made out of scrap lumber and hardware cloth last year was up to the job of separating out the fine finished compost from the chunky bits.  If we braved the snow to turn the pile over the winter I think we would have gotten more finished material, but what we have should be enough to build up the organic matter in the small beds.

IMG_7125The other big garden improvement we’ve embarked on is a fence to keep the critters out.  We decided to hire professionals for that job and work is underway right now, so we’ll have pictures to share soon.

Finally, we invested a little money in a basic drip irrigation kit so we can water more effectively and efficiently throughout the season.

Hopefully, all these improvements will make a firm foundation for bountiful fruit and veggie harvests.  On that note, we have some exciting plantings queued up for this season, including a fruit tree and some berry bushes.  More on that in a future post.

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Long Time no Blog

Updates around here have been conspicuously absent so far in 2015 (not to mention for most of 2014).  Mostly that’s a result of jobs and the baby and the dog leaving us limited time to undertake blogable projects, much less write blog posts about them.  In last couple of months in particular though, the Minnisingh household has been busy with a couple of big things in addition to shoveling endless snow and trucking endless firewood into the house.

For one, Phil left his job at the end of the year to start his own business – a consulting practice providing financial planning help to nonprofits and small businesses.  It’s off to a really good start, but tending to a fledgling business on top of everything else really cuts down on free time.

Second, we had to deal with some family medical stuff.  We’ve known since before he was born that Lucien had a condition called hydronephrosis in one of his kidneys.  It’s pretty common and often resolves itself either in utero or soon thereafter.  In Lucien’s case, however, the issue was more on the severe side, not improving, and starting to do permanent damage to his kidney.  so in early February he had a surgical procedure to correct the issue.  He came through the surgery like a champ and chances are good that the problem will be completely resolved.   Also, it’s worth pointing out that he doesn’t seem to have ever been in any discomfort or had any noticeable symptoms at all –  it’s only due to ultrasounds that we ever knew the issue existed.  Anyway, between all the doctor appointments and pre-surgery testing and a the better part of a week in the childrens’ hospital, a big chunk of our 2015 has been focused on getting this situation taken care of.  Maybe we’ll write some more about this at some point – it was definitely helpful for us to hear from other folks who had been through it.

Good as new!

Good as new!

But now spring is starting to sprung and we have no shortage of projects waiting for us so it seems like a good time to jumpstart this site.  A few of the things we’re looking forward to (and/or “looking forward to”) tackling in the coming months:

  • Fencing in the north end of the property as a first step to significantly expanding the garden.  Deer deterrence and local building codes around fence installation will go head to head.
  • We’ve got to start doing major soil amendment work if we’re going to grow much of anything at any point.
  • The chimney chase running through our home office is still unfinished drywall and in the process of having it installed, we exposed a bunch of nice moldings that need serious refinishing.  Also, the shape of that part of the room is weird now and we’ve been thinking about installing some built-in shelving to make it look more purposeful.
  • The winter has left our already sparsely-graveled driveway a muddy, rutted mess.  At least one of us has dreams of a brick or paver ribbon driveway, but in the short term we may just need to bite the bullet and pay for like 15 yards of new gravel.
  • In the never-ending quest for some kind of energy efficiency, we want to install some weatherproof convertible screen/storm doors that, unlike out current storm doors, actually cover the whole aperture of the doorway.
  • Everything is always breaking and we need to figure out how to fix it.

Stay tuned!

Posted in Food and Gardening, Kids, Renovation | 2 Comments

Mix and Match Heat

The path toward figuring out how to heat the house is really a one-step-at-a-time project.  Getting the wood stove installed was definitely a big leap in that regard, but it didn’t get us all the way there.  The big issue these days is distributing the heat produced by our (sizable) stove throughout the house.

In general, we’re using the air handler to circulate the hot air throughout the house and we’ve put dampers on most of the ducts leading to registers on the first floor so that the hot air is directed primarily to the second floor, where the radiant heat from the stove can’t reach.  In addition, we had the thermostat moved upstairs (and out of the room with the wood stove), effectively creating two heating zones in the house: the first floor relies on the wood stove and the second floor which gets residual heat from the stove, but gets an assist from propane as needed.

A the moment, the temperature of air through the forced air ducts still a bit uneven, which I think it largely due to draftiness near the floor returns on first floor drawing colder air into the ducts.  Out ongoing efforts to air seal and insulate will improve this situation over time.

Also, we want to maximize the passive transfer of heat to the second floor, which could involve installing a short vent between the ceiling of wood stove room and the floor of the hallway above.  Our fire inspector pointed out that there’s a safety concern here, in that a vent between floors of the house could allow a house fire to spread more rapidly.  He didn’t know whether the vent would be acceptable under fire codes, so I had to get in touch with the New York State Department of State’s Division of Code Enforcement and Administration.  It turns out that there is no code that directly addresses this issue and as a result, it isn’t prohibited.  They state agreed with the safety concern our local inspector raised, but noted that an open stairwell (in the adjacent room, in our case) offers a similar risk.  So, we may move forward with that.

In the meantime, we’ve had almost two months of use out of the wood stove so far, which gives us some data to show how it’s impacting our propane usage.  The last time I charted our propane usage was for the winter and spring of 2012/2013 (i.e., not this last winter of polar vortices).  During that time, we were using anywhere between 5 and 7.5

propane usage 3

The temperatures in recent weeks have been somewhat higher, overall, than those in the last chart, but it’s hard to miss how much lower our propane usage has been.  Even when the temperatures dropped in the latter half of November, our average gallons/day (right-hand Y axis) came in at just under 2.5.  The last delivery period in the graph above had roughly the same average high and low temperatures (high 46, low 28) and we were using almost twice as much propane.


fall2014propaneSo, it seems pretty clear that the economic benefit is there.  At the rate we’re currently paying for propane ($2.49/gal, which seems to be our baseline pricing, though in winter it has gotten much higher), reducing our daily usage by 2.5 gallons means a monthly savings of about $185.  Once it gets colder out, we could potentially have more dramatic savings assuming we can maximize our wood heat.  Even more so if propane costs increase again.  Of course to know our true savings and the timeline for a financial return on installing the stove we also have to account for how much we’re paying for wood.  But since it’s a bit hard to gauge exactly how much we’ve spent on the wood we’ve used so far (some of it was bought, some I split from trees we paid to have taken down, some I split from trees our neighbors took down), I’m going to wait for spring to do that calculation.

Above and beyond the economics, the big difference is that our house is much more comfortable so far this fall and winter than it has been the last two years.  Draftiness is still an issue and the upstairs does still get cold toward the end of the night, but now we can spend a snowy evening at home without needing to put on two pairs of socks and an extra sweater and climb under a blanket to get warm.  There’s a lot of value in that as well.

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