Simplicity by Choice

Off-Grid Living & Self-Reliance

Solar Oven Experiment July 11, 2013

Filed under: cooking,green living,off grid — ourprairiehome @ 5:12 pm
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My blog posts have been sporadic due to lack of reliable Internet.  I am working at getting that improved soon.

Last week, I decided to take the plunge and do a little experiment with solar cooking.  I had purchased one of those foil sun shades for the Jeep’s windshield.  I got to thinking about how reflective it is.  Wouldn’t it make a good “in a pinch” solar cooker?

In the yard, we have a black metal trailer for the small lawn tractor.  I set up a metal wash tub in the trailer with a small block under one end to place it on an angle towards the west.  I then formed the foil windshield shade into a cone shape.  This was placed into the washtub.

I wasn’t feeling horribly brave, so got out a small roasting pan and filled the bottom with chopped up potatoes, bell peppers, onions, and squash.  I tossed the veggies with a drizzle of olive oil to coat them and sprinkled on some sea salt.  The pan was covered with clear plastic wrap and set into the center of the foil cone.

I left the veggies roasting until they had only a slight crunch left to them.  It took about 2 hours due to the size of the veggies.  Chopped smaller, they would obviously have cooked faster.  When I removed the pan, I learned rather quickly that an oven mitt would be helpful.  Thankfully, I always have aloe vera on hand!

The results of the little experiment was that the make-shift solar cooker worked just fine.  It would be an easy option in an emergency situation.  We did have to accept that the roasted veggies do not get browned like they would in a standard oven.  That was the only real difference that we noticed.

My darling husband is planning to build a solar cooker for me when we get a chance.  He is planning to make it a combination solar oven and solar dehydrator.    When we look at plans for each, we find that it will be fairly easy to make a combination oven/dehydrator.

 

 

Choices in Off-Grid Cooking April 9, 2013

Filed under: cooking,family,homesteading,off grid,simplicity — ourprairiehome @ 3:46 am
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Each year, we set up what we refer to as our summer kitchen. A portion of the porch is converted into a sheltered cooking area. Having this allows us to cook without heating up the home. We spend a lot of time outdoors and this seems a natural extension of that.

This year, we have added to the usual outdoor grilling. We bought a propane griddle that is 4-burner and large enough to cook up enough food for an outdoor gathering. This works in great with our love of stir-fry in the summer when produce is fresh. I can also fry up flat breads and tortillas on the griddle to take the place of bread loaves.

One thing that I am wanting to try and do this year is get my solar oven made. Having an outdoor dog and cat, the foil lined box style of solar over would not be a good idea. I am going to have to actually build something that is critter-proof. I have seen some really neat plans for building solar food dehydrators and got to thinking. What would be so hard as to use that basic plan but make an oven out of it instead of a dehydrator. There is very little difference in the basic construction. If I could fine a way to make 1 solar unit that could do both, that would be ideal.

A rocket stove made from cinder blocks would be a nice option for the summer kitchen. We have a dirt area near the house that would be safe for that purpose. It would be an option for the times when we don’t want to use the propane burner that we have. I like the propane option, but want alternatives that will allow us to not depend on any refined fuels. Wood, we have in plenty on our homestead. Sunlight is another plentiful resource. Those are our summer mainstays.

I am looking forward to the outdoor cooking. It is always a fun time for us. With each passing year, we add another facet to the kitchen to make it even more convenient. Now if we could get rid of the wasps that like to partake in our porch’s shade….

 

Too Much Work? February 23, 2013

It seems strange to me to hear the opinions of others concerning our lifestyle. As early as in the book of Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve were instructed that their lives would require hard work. It was after they were taken out of the Garden of Eden. The Lord made it known to them that it would be by the sweat of their brow that their crops would grow. How often do we read in scripture about the hard work the people had to do in order to provide for their families? The stories of the women having to glean in the fields for grain to make their bread or the men who worked in the fields or fish with nets are abundant. The Apostle Paul even goes so far as to say in 1 Thessalonians 3:7-10 “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model to you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”

In today’s society, we have drawn away from that attitude more and more. While there are many who are physically unable to do hard work, there is always something that can be done. Unfortunately, it is in our human nature to be lazy and complacent. It is much easier to be taken care of than to work. We all have those moments in our lives. In some areas it is far easier to take advantage of modern technology. The danger in this is that here we are today with a generation of young adults who haven’t a clue how to live without modern conveniences. Is it any wonder that when a storm knocks the power out, many families freak out? It was a shock to find out a couple of years ago that some people actually believe it is not legal to be off-grid. People are so accustomed to having electricity and all the modern conveniences that they find it too strange to think some would choose to live without it.

Suddenly, we find ourselves where we are today, a nation with serious economic issues. People are unemployed or under-employed. Record numbers of people are receiving government aid through food stamps of other means. The problem lies in the fact that there are many receiving these “entitlements” that feel it is their right to receive them. My question is this; what will happen when the nation runs out of tax money to pay for it? It has happened in other nations? What makes people believe it cannot happen here?

I have said it many times in the past, but I say it again. My husband and I do not feel that ALL people should live as off-grid as we choose to do. It really isn’t for everyone. If readers are honest however, they will admit that there are things that they can implement in their own homes to make their lives just a bit easier. Whether it be to plant a small garden in their yard or in containers on their balcony, work towards becoming debt-free, or simply being more cautious in their spending.

We often are asked how we manage on as little as we do financially. The answer is simple. We make it work. It doesn’t matter how much or little the pay is, we find a way to make the money stretch as far as possible. Being in the truck driving industry, the pay is dependent upon how many miles my husband drives. Some weeks the pay is much better than others. We have literally had a week when the truck broke down and our paycheck was in the negative due to the deductions being more than his pay that week. Then we have a paycheck come along that is very good. We learned to stock up when pay is good in preparation for the times when pay is low. It is a life of feast or famine. We are blessed in that my husband works for a company and not an owner/operator leasing to a company for his loads. A truck payment for the semi and all the permits, etc., would be hard financially devastating if we also had to make repairs to the truck as well as pay for fuel. As a company driver, the company takes care of all of those expenses.

The easy answer to how we make our income work is this. We have to work to save money. If I want to save money on the cost of doing laundry, I have to wash it by hand. This alone saves us $20 per week when compared to doing laundry at a Laundromat in town. In winter months, we use a Laundromat but in the warmer months, the laundry is done at home on a scrub board. I actually enjoy those times. I find it very peaceful and relaxing.

If we want to cut our food costs, we have to grow our own food. If unable to grow your own, you can cut costs by being less fancy in your cooking and using less processed foods. Using the raw or basic ingredients can save you a bundle in expenses. A loaf of bread that costs $2 at the store would only cost about 68 cents to make at home. On average, not including meat, you can cut your grocery expense down to about ¼ of your monthly bill if you stop buying the store versions of your favorite packaged foods. In spite of rising food costs, I am still managing to spend under $200 per month to feed our family of 4. We eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet most of the time, with a few meat meals scattered throughout the month.

For cutting costs in utilities, I am very frugal even with our water usage. Not only is this great for our environment, but it helps keep our monthly bills down. We live in a drought area. Last year, the gardens did very poorly due to the heat and drought. So, this year, I am planning a “drought garden” instead of a traditional one. A drought garden is one in which you plant vegetables and herbs that are drought resistant. Root crops are great for this! They require less water than things like green beans or tomatoes. There are varieties of fruit that are drought and heat resistant also. Many are heirloom varieties that are open pollinated (not GMO) and survive well in our region. I am planning 2 plantings of leafy greens. The first will be in early spring and the second will take place in late summer or early autumn. This will give us a nice supply of salads during the cooler months. Instead of growing celery, I am planting leaf celery. This herb tastes like celery but is far easier to grow and the leaves can be dried for winter use.

Canning may seem pricey when a person first starts, but when you remember that the jars are reusable, canning is far less expensive than buying the tins of vegetables & fruit at the store. Often, I find old canning jars at yard sales or secondhand shops. After the initial investment into buying jars, you only have to replace the flat lids that are used to seal the jars. There is a company called “Tattler” that makes the old fashioned resealable lids. These cost more than the single use lids, but are a onetime purchase. The time spent growing (or purchasing from a farmer’s market) and home canning your harvest can save your family $1,000s of dollars over a year’s time. It all depends on the amount of food you grow and preserve.

As with any other aspect of our lifestyle, the amount of work we are willing to do has a great influence in the amount of expense we have each month. The amount of work we choose to do allows us to live comfortably without the use of financial assistance or food stamps. It can be done. The question is whether others are willing to put forth the effort needed to do it. Whether it is just a little change here and a little change there, you can make a difference in your family’s spending. It is not something beyond anyone’s ability. The question comes down to how serious people are about wanting to change their spending habits and have the ability to live on less. It is only a nice idea that they would like to consider or is it something that they truly want to work towards?

 

Burst Water Line February 4, 2013

Filed under: homesteading,off grid,simplicity — ourprairiehome @ 2:22 am
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Spent a wonderful 4 days with a dear friend’s family this past week. They live about a 2 hour drive from our home. I left the water trickling from the faucets in case of very cold night temperatures. Well, evidently the water wasn’t trickling enough. One line had a crack in the shut-off valve fitting. Luckily, the water didn’t cause a tremendous amount of damage before I got home on Friday late afternoon. I got the water shut off at the meter so that we could fix the problem. I was so grateful that my darling husband was going to be home the following morning. What started out as a simple repair didn’t quite go that way, but the problem was dealt with over the weekend.

This experience brought to mind once more just how blessed we are to be living as we do. Though the water was shut off for a couple of days, we had a water supply that was more than we needed. We didn’t have to worry about not having a toilet or a method to wash up at day’s end. We were prepared. It really gives us a sense of peace to know that when life gives us these little surprises, we are able to handle them without any worry.

I learned from this experience also. From now on I will be shutting off the water at the meter if freezing temperatures are predicted or if I am going to be away from home for a few days. This will prevent any possibility of a water line breaking again. I am going to increase the size of our water storage. We had more than ample amounts for this experience, but I can see where more would be beneficial if we were without water for an extended time due to a natural disaster. Being on a rural water service, there are times when they are doing maintenance on the system and we are without water for the day. Most times, this happens without any notice. Having extra water available would help in those situations also.

It just happened that on my way home from my friend’s home, I had stopped and picked up bags of ice weighing approximately 20 lbs. each. One was put into a large orange color water cooler, similar to that used on job sites, which we use to keep ice cold water on hand during warm months. The other bag was put into another food cooler to be used in drinks. If you have ice available, it can be melted to use as water for drinking or cooking if needed.

We have been considering for a long time to rework the house’s plumbing. Seeing the jumble of pipes under our home makes any work a nightmare. Some lines are old gas lines that have not been used in many years. Certainly not since my husband bought the house 12 years ago. There are pipes that seem to go nowhere. Basically, someone reworked the plumbing without removing old pipes that were no longer needed. What a mess!

It seems as though each time we figure out what part of the house we will work on next, something occurs that changes those plans. Such is life in an old home! You can’t get frustrated, just roll with it where it takes you. Adapt and allow life to teach you whatever lessons there are to be learned along the way. Even if the lesson is in how to deal with these “learning opportunities” without developing a new vocabulary along the way. LOL

 

Trip to the ER January 20, 2013

Filed under: faith,family,homesteading,simplicity — ourprairiehome @ 6:44 pm
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On Saturday, I ended up going to the ER. My legs and lower back were painful with my legs also having some numbness. Long story short, I have had this problem for a while but I was being stubborn. The doctor found that I have a lot of inflammation. In November, 2004, I had been in a minor car accident that caused a back injury. It seems that old injury is coming back to haunt me. The doctor also suspects that I may have Rheumatoid Arthritis showing up. Monday, I will be calling to set up a follow-up appointment at a clinic. Likely, there will be some testing needed to find out for certain.

I am returning to my old diet of eating vegetarian foods, leaning more heavily towards vegan diet. In the past, that helped me to have relief. I seemed to feel much better when I avoided packaged foods, meat, eggs, and most dairy products. The only animal products that I ate were hard cheeses, yogurt, butter, and sour cream.

How will RA affect my lifestyle? As little as possible. I will continue to do the daily tasks that I have always done. The only difference is that I will be portioning out the workload a bit more. Heavier work will be saved until my husband is home from his trucking job so that he can help me.

Already, I have been scaling the work down. That is in part the reason why I am working towards getting the house organized. Once the work is done, I will have an easier time in the daily maintenance.

The doctor sent me home with a couple of prescriptions. I will be taking Prednizone for 3 days and a muscle relaxer as needed. I am not entirely thrilled to be taking medication. I am looking at the more natural alternatives. Getting back to the vegetarian diet is only the first step.

On a fun note, my husband and I are doing something new on Monday afternoon. I haven’t been able to wear a wedding ring due to metal allergies. So, we found a tattoo design that we are getting done on our ring finger. The tattoo artist we are going to uses only organic, metal-free inks. I am really excited about this. On our anniversary, February 17th, we will be renewing our wedding vows after church services. When we married, it was very small with only the pastor, his wife, and members of their family. There were no friends or family of our own in attendance. This time, we will be married by our own pastor with our church family there with us. It is such a wonderful time for us.

In upcoming posts, I am going to start sharing more ideas on how to live without electricity. I have been really bad about not posting pictures, so am taking another step in that area. I am planning out my blog posts a bit more and listing pictures that may be needed. The future posts that are of a tutorial style will often have pictures or a link to a YouTube video to go along with it. I have been trying to figure out how to do the videos and finally have come up with a temporary solution using an old cell phone. Quality may not be as good, but it will at least give some illustration.

 

A Hoarder’s Nightmare January 17, 2013

I proudly admit it. I am a hoarder’s nightmare. Why do I say this? In our house, we have a strict rule. Unless it is something like a tools or other essential homestead item, if the items go unused or needed for 3 months, they are not necessary to keep. I can just imagine the gasps and panics that a true hoarder would have at the thought of applying that rule in their own homes.

There are many reasons for why we apply this routine in our family. First, it immediately cuts down on the clutter. We only have around the items that are truly necessary. Sure, we have bits of time when clutter happens. It makes me crazy though. I just can’t stand it. I never have a problem with it at someone else’s home, but it makes me edgy in my own home. I simply cannot relax. If I need something, I don’t like having to search for it.

Living our lifestyle of doing things as past generations did, I don’t have time to be constantly having to declutter and clean. I have enough to do each day without causing myself extra work. I have always dreamed of having a simply furnished home like those the pioneers may have had. They didn’t have excess. Sadly, the “entitlement” mentality of today’s generations have brought about the idea of having whatever we want. But is that attitude really a healthy one? Where are we learning self-restraint? Where are we learning to prioritize? What example are we giving our children?

When I have our home as it should be, with all excess removed, it is fast and easy to maintain. I have much more time to spend doing daily chores and doing activities with the children. Stress levels are nearly non-existant.

I have found that the children play with only a very few toys, yet they have many more. The extra toys end up scattered due to lack of space to store them. It makes no sense to hold on to the toys that are not played with. Instead, they could be donated to a shelter or thrift store so that other kids could enjoy them. If the toys are in very good condition, a church nursery may even have use for them.

In the kitchen, it is very easy to let excess get out of hand. I have a weakness in that area. I see a kitchen item at a thrift store or yard sale and am sure that I will use it quite often, only to find that I rarely use it. I tend to gravitate to the same kitchen utensils and cookware every time I prepare a meal. I tested my theory by placing in the pantry the items I rarely use. If I didn’t need those items within 2 months, I knew I wouldn’t miss it.

I read an idea on some blogs of filling 40 bags in 40 days. This idea is to take a bag and going through one closet or room at a time, fill a bag each day. These are to be donated or disposed of. The idea being that at the end of that 40 day time period, your home will be decluttered. It is a workable idea for those who are not sure where to start. For me, I like to simply take one room at a time and do a thorough job of it. It is very similar to spring cleaning. I just prefer to do it more often.

 

Wood Stove Cooking January 9, 2013

It has been quite some time since I have written about cooking on a wood stove. I wanted to share a few ideas that I have used to make the process easier.
woodstove
This picture is one of the wood stove that I cook on. It also provides heat for our kitchen. The stove was made by Atlanta Stoves Works. I love it! The oven is very small, but functional. I went to the Dollar Tree store and bought small baking pans & cookie sheets that are better sized for the oven. The large baking sheets popular for modern ovens do not fit.

The first thing that I do prior to using the wood stove each season is to blacken it. Blackening a stove means that you are polishing it with a black polish designed for cast iron stoves. This polishing process will continue throughout the year, whenever the stove is in need of it. I currently use a liquid polish, but am preparing to order a tin of polish that is about the same consistency as a tin of shoe polish. A cast iron stove needs a good polishing to prevent rust. Periodically, I will notice that an area is becoming dull. This is not only due to spills, but simply the friction of the cookware rubbing against the stove. Whenever the stove is cool enough, a quick wipe with the polish on a scrap of an old cotton t-shirt rag is enough to freshen the stove.

When cooking on the stove, it is important to remember that choices in firewood will determine the amount of heat your stove puts out. Soft woods, such as pine, are fast burning and while they do put out heat, the heat is not sustained as long as a harder wood. A favorite local wood in our area is pecan. It burns very hot and lasts much longer than pine. I try to stay away from soft wood unless I have nothing else on hand. Usually, I will mix it with the hard wood to stretch out my hard wood supply if need be.

Unlike cooking on a modern stove, a wood stove requires much more tending. If you are simmering a pot of soup or stew, you need to maintain the fire. There is a constant fluctuation of heat taking place. I have a set of cast iron trivets of various heights. These are my temperature controls. If I have added more firewood and the stew is at risk of scorching, I put it on a trivet and move it to a slightly cooler part of the stove. You will find that every wood stove has a “hot spot” where foods cook quickest and are at higher risk of burning or scorching. This takes a short time to figure out. To learn your stove’s hot spots, set 6 recycled tin cans across your stove. Fill each about 3/4 full of water. I placed the tins in 2 rows of 3 with one row towards the back and the second towards the front of the stove. I placed one set over the firebox, another set in the stove’s center, and the last set on the far side away from the firebox. I got a hot fire going and watched to see which tin of water boiled first, then second and last. This was all I needed to know on that topic. I learned that my stove is hottest directly over the firebox towards the back. The coolest spot was the front portion of the side opposite of the firebox. This let me know where I could simmer all day without worry of scorching.

In lighting the stove, I learned a trick years ago. Pack a cotton ball with petroleum jelly. I place it onto a piece of bark from the wood pile or the chopping area. The cotton ball lights very easily and will burn for several minutes. It gives me plenty of time to add kindling to get the fire going well before adding the larger pieces of split firewood. A jar of these will last quite a while and do not dry out or lose their effectiveness. Near the wood stove, I would suggest keeping 4 items: the tin of blackening polish with a piece of cloth, a tin or jar of the prepared cotton balls, a box of matches, and a jar of aloe gel. The aloe is there simply in case of a burn. In my case, it is guaranteed that I will receive at 2-3 burns at least just from forgetting to use a pot holder then I grab the handle of a kettle or the cast iron skillet.

In cooking on a wood stove, I have learned that using lids can really help to speed up the process. This is especially true when you are making breakfast first thing in the morning. Our stove usually is cold in the morning, so I use a lid on the kettle so that the contents will heat up faster.

Baking in the wood stove’s oven was my latest challenge. The rack in the oven was not adjustable. I removed it as it was not the right height for my bread pans. I had an extra jar rack from an old water bath canner, which I turned upside down and placed into the oven. This fits very well and is the right height for my bread. To use the oven, I keep an oven thermometer in the oven so that I can gauge the temperature easier. Unlike using a modern oven, I don’t worry about the temperature being exact, but to stay within a 25* range above and below the desired temperature. When I baked bread in the oven, it took longer, but came out very nice. The oven temperature was maintained at about 300-325*F instead of the 350*F the recipe calls for. Even with the temperature causing a longer baking time, the bread was very good.

Wood stove baking is a high maintenance task when compared to modern ovens. Throughout the process, I had to be sure to remove a small shovel of coals from the firebox to place on top of the oven box. To do this, I lifted the burner plates above the oven and scattered the coals evenly on top before replacing the burner plates. This helped to heat the oven more evenly. Otherwise the heat would only have come from the left side of the oven where the firebox is located. After the first 10 minutes of baking, I turned the bread pan around 180* so that the side of the pan that had been closest to the firebox was now farthest away. I did this rotation every 10 minutes. As soon as I saw the top of the bread beginning to brown, I covered it with foil to prevent it from becoming too dark. I also found that it worked best to place the bread pan closer to the side of the oven that was farthest away from the firebox. This was in great part due to my burning hard wood only. The harder wood allowed me to use the coals more efficiently on top of the oven as they did not burn away as quickly as soft wood.

Overall, I love cooking on the wood stove. I enjoy it far more than using a modern stove. I often can cook faster on the wood stove than the gas stove. Especially once the stove has been lit for a while. I cook mainly with cast iron. The only exception being my stock pots. Along with the trivets I mentioned above, the cast iron makes cooking easier. The pans retain heat much longer. As a matter of fact, I always end up using a trivet even when frying pancakes or other foods due to how hot the cast iron becomes.

If you are handy with a needle and thread, a very simple tool to keep on hand are handle covers. Get yourself a couple of square pot holders from the dollar store. Fold each in half and whipstitch along one short edge and the long edge. Leave one short end open so that the cover will over the handle of your pans & skillets. Having some of these will save your fingers from being burned.

I hope that this gives you some ideas on wood stove cooking. There are always so many questions that I am asked that I never know if I have answered them all. Feel free to ask if you have any that were not answered here. Just keep in mind that as you had to practice and learn to use a modern stove, a wood stove is no different. It just takes a little time and experience to learn your stove. Each one has it’s own “personality” of sorts. The hot spots on one may vary from another stove of the same model. Once you start using a wood stove, it won’t take long to become comfortable with it.

Enjoy!