I have gotten a couple of private emails directing me to an article that is linked at the survivalblog website about a family on unemployment in Elkhart, Indiana. I suppose it could make you angry (it did a lot of people) because this family is losing their rental home while still purchasing beer, soda and cigarettes but it just made me sad. These guys thought they had a contract with America for a specific kind of life and somebody broke the contract. Pointing fingers won’t help.

This got me to thinking about a couple of other emails I have received asking where I thought families should begin in starting a preparedness program. These were people less concerned with big disasters and more concerned with recession depriving them of their livelihood. Yesterday, I spent some time looking over what I have and trying to prioritize  in terms of real usefulness. For instance, I have a bottle capper because I like to make soda but I would not give that a high rating. Making soda is fun but not necessary for survival. What follows is my “gotta have it list” for preparing to live on less.

Water bath canner: I start here because water bath canning allows you to glean and gather fruit and process it with very little effort. You can buy a couple of bushels of tomatoes and put up quarts and quarts of sauce. If you have some land, and by some I mean ripping out the roses if necessary, you can grow tomatoes and your sauce will be nearly free.

Pressure canner: Meat in bulk is a lot less expensive but you need to be able to preserve it. Freezers and electricity cost a lot more than a quality canner and the meat is there, able to be turned into easy, stove top or outdoor cooked meals. I would start by learning to can hamburger, chicken and stew beef.

Dehydrator: Today, I am buying bags of frozen vegetables at the big box store and drying them for long term storage. They are cheap right now and I want to avoid buying another freezer so drying is the way to go. Drying herbs and fruit is easy and requires less electricity than any other method of preservation.

Food Saver: Having a vacuum sealer makes it possible to keep dried food in optimal condition. I dry larger vegetables and grind them up for soup base.

Canning jars: You can never have too many. Check out yard sales and Craig’s List for the best buys but if you must pay cash, consider them an investment.

Weather proofing: check out every program that is available to help you reduce your energy consumption. Sell the big screen TV to buy insulation.

One good, basic cookbook: You need to know how to prepare real food. Every time you are tempted to buy fast food, put those dollars away and make biscuits and gravy and a simple vegetable dish. Follow up with a fruit cobbler.

Community: Got friends? If you have friends, you have people to share expenses with and people to learn with. That canner is less expensive if you buy it with your sister or your best friend. You half the cost and double the fun. Instead of spending money going out to eat or to the movies, pick a couple of bushels of apples and put up apple sauce. You will have so much fun and be eating great food in January when the stuff in stores is expensive and shipped in from Chili

Land: By land, I mean garden space. Maybe your church or synagogue will put in a garden if you get the ball rolling. We have a garden on our school grounds this summer. Families are taking turns caring for it. Go to the library and check out books on self sufficiency on small spaces. There are lots to chose from and they are full of ideas. Check out books on thrifty living. The Tightwad Gazette books are a good place to start. I have all of them and read them often for inspiration.

This recession is far from over. The people in Elkhart would call it a depression. If only they had prepared for this time, there lives would be so much better, so much healthier. We all need to be preparing for a life of less. It is up to us to make decisions now that will keep our families healthy and happy, no matter the economy does.

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With all of the rain lately, I have been forces inside. While I wold much rather be in the garden, this has given me an opportunity to reorganize my kitchen and work on my preparedness menues. To make it to the list of meals a food must be something I store or can make from what I store, able to be cooked with the methods I have available, tasty, nutritious and able to be stretched should we be feeding more people than planned.

We had one of my favorite meals last night. It is a simple pizza made from the easy 5 minute bread recipe from Mother Earth News. I have the book that this bread recipe came from. It is a terrific find for those who are not comfortable with baking bread as it is pretty hard to mess up. The sauce is from my stored foods as are the mushrooms. I love to make cheese so there you have it. Did I mention that pepperoni keeps for a long time without refrigeration? Bruce boght me a sweet little oven that sits on top of a wood or gas stove. It gets plenty hot enough to bake a pizza. When I have recipes finished, I will put them all in as a post. Most will not require recipes as pretty much everybody has a recipe for salmon cakes and the like sitting around.

I have an experiment to try. I do not grow enogh vegetables to meet all of my needs. Most, but certainly not all. I have read that it is possible to buy frozen vegetables and dry them in a dehydrator. The next rainy day, I am soing an internet search on that. If it works, I plan to dry purchased corn and peas (organic) and dry them to supplement my stores. I am also drying purchased celery as I use a lot of it in soups and I have never been able to grow it here. I need more onions, peppers and garlic than I gres this year, (the rain was hard on my garlic) bt those are the basis for nearly everything I cook. I am a big believer in trying to keep my crisis food as close to what I eat every day as possible.

I am heading to the hardware store as soon as it opens. On of the joys of this tiny town is that it has a terrific, independent hardware store. The prices are a bit higher but the owner is my neighbor and they are located a 30 second walk from my house. If Bruce finds he needs a piece of wood on a Sunday, he walks down and picks it up and drops by on Monday to pay for it. Try that at Home Depot. I need to get some paint to fix p the metal storage cabinet I got at a tag sale on Saturday. I am painting a couple of other cabinets that I keep in the kitchen. I need to come up with better storage for my dried foods as they can not be stored in the basement. I figure things might as well be pretty as not. All of this is on hold right now as the sun is shining and I am going outside to enjoy it.

We have been fiddling with a name for our mini farm for a while and finally settled on Barefoot Farm. My daught-in-law, Maggie, designed the logo for us. I wish I knew how to post it. Maybe Heather can come over today and show me.

I have been working on coming up with a set of good recipes that can be made with food I raise, purchase locally or buy in bulk. This  had to be food that everyone enjoys and also easy on the pocketbook. I have foud that looking to traditional peasant cooking is a good place to start. Last night, We had Golumpki. ( I am probably misspelling this) I got the recipe from Heather, my neighbor both on this blog and in life. She is an excellent Polish cook. I steamed some cabbage leaves to soften, cut out the thick ribs and stuffed them with a mixture of cooked rice, leftover, ground steak, onions, peppers and diced tomatoes. I made a sauce out of the last two jars of home canned tomato juice that was simmered with a bit of sugar to thicken. It was a terrific meal. I am thinking that if I didn’t have the beef, I could substitute black beans or marinated and sauteed oyster mushrooms. We followed this meal with a cobbler of home canned cherries and sweet biscuits. Nothing was purchased from a supermarket as I bulk purchase all of the baking ingredients and the rice. This will definitely go in my preparedness recipe journal.

Heather came by yesterday and said something we laughed at but it is really true. It is expensive to be a peasant. We were talking about buying crocks. I needed a couple of good size crocks for making kraut and pickles but they are dreadfully expensive, as in $200.00 for a locally made, hand crafted crock. Old ones have become collector’s items and are hard to find. I found some huge, glass jars that will do for what I need for only $13.oo so I bought a couple of them. It seems like a lot of us received things when we got married like fondue pots and panini makers, bread machines and espresso machines. What we needed were the basics, crocks and ceramic bowls, cast iron cookware and gardening tools. Now a lot of us have to build a homesteading life from scratch. I sure didn’t inherit that stuff from my parents. We got boxes of knick knacks and murder mysteries. I wish they had not been so anxious to dismiss their peasant roots for the life of cosmopolitan retirees. Of course, they had no way of knowing that the stuff they threw in the dump would be the very thing I would crave a generation later.

My plan today is to spend some time doing an inventory on my bulk grains, flour, rice and sugar supplies. I am afraid I am getting low on a few things. I also plan to look for a new stove. I bought a new stove several years ago and it is the worst piece of junk I ever bought. It has a glass cook top that is not supposed to be used for canning and the burners blow out on a regular basis. The temperature is hard to maintain and it is a pain to clean. I want a gas range. The cook top will work without electricity which is a real selling point and I can use my canning equipment without fearing I will break the top. I hate buy it but my stove is a tool and I need one that works for me.

Before I get to the post-I found another great blog today. Riverrockcottage.blogspot.com is terrific. Her photos are so inspiring. This a homeschooling mom (I loved my homeschooling years) with a flair for organizing. When I saw her photos I wanted to clean out my bookcases. She recommended a couple of books I want to read (including mine) and had a solution for problem for my dishwasher problem. I should be using a powder, not a gel for one thing. Now on to canning.

Before you begin any pressure canning, check over all of your equipment. I am usually the biggest fan of getting things used but in the case of a pressure canner, think twice. In some models, the seal is formed with a rubber gasket. Rubber breaks down over time and needs to be replaced if cracked or worn. The pressure gauge should be checked by the extension service and re-calibrated if necessary on a used model. I have an inexpensive canner that uses weights but I am upgrading to a much larger canner with a gauge this year. Find out your elevation. You need to adjust canning times if you are more than 1000 feet above sea level. Take out all of your jars and check them carefully for nicks and cracks. Discard rings that are getting rusty or have been bent at all. Stock up on new lids if necessary. You can reuse the rings. If you put out the word, you might score jars from somebody’s basement. I am not one for a ton of gadgets but I got a stick magnet for pulling jar lids out of simmering water. I love that little thing. I have a lifting lid holder but it does not fit in my small sauce pan. I have a plastic, large mouth funnel. I am trying to come up with a reason to swap it for a beautiful metal one. I have two jar lifters. I like the one that lifts from above rather than the one that comes in from the side. That one has to be held at a funny angle. You need a good place to set hot jars. It has to be safe from bumping and away from curious little hands. The contents of pressure canned food stays hot for hours. I have a timer on my microwave but I use a small manual timer. It is a lot louder and no one will accidentaly shut it off to check the time. I used wooden skewers for releasing any trapped air from my jars. A metal knife or spatula could crack a jar. Have plenty of clean rags and a good apron ready. Canning is messy business. I use three resources; The Ball Blue book, Keeping the Harvest and The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food. If you can only get one, go with Ball Blue book. It is inexpensive and accurate. If you are a novice, find a mentor. No book is a substitute for someone who knows what they’re doing. On that note, don’t believe everything you hear. The standards have changed over the years for a reason. You do not want to get food poisoning or lose produce because you tried to save some time or money. Follow the USDA guidelines.

Not all food cans well. Strawberries lose their color and get mushy. Canned broccoli is good for nothing but pig food. I mostly pressure can meat, some beans, carrots and peas to show at the the fair and to throw into stew if I am in a hurry and tomato sauce. I only  pressure can the sauce because I put in so many other vegetables like summer squash, onions, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms that need pressure canning. You always use the directions for the food needing the longest processing time. I could water bath the tomatoes and make the sauce as I need it but I love the convenience of having fabulous sauce on hand. The only thing I wait on are the spices.

One final thing. Use only the best quality produce for canning. Preserving always cost something in terms of flavor and nutrition and you want to start with the best from the garden or farmer’s market.

I know a lot of people are afraid of pressure canning. They have heard the stories of exploding canners and entire families found dead from botulism. In the early days of canning, the good metal was used for the war machine and inferior metal used for home canners. That is no longer the case. New canners have stringent quality requirements and are totally safe when the directions are followed. If you follow the directions, the food will not only be safe but, in some cases improved. Pressure canned meat is tender, flavorful and ready to eat-great for both preparedness and busy days.

My yard looks haunted, with sheets and towels and tarps covering all of my tender plants. I am afraid that my tomatoes may be beyond help. The basil is probably toast as well. They just don’t handle the cold wind we have been cursed with for the past week. In an effort to make it feel a bit more like summer around here, I decided to mix up a batch of ginger ale. It isn’t hard to do although if you are inherently sloppy as I tend to be, it can get sticky.

You probably have all of the ingredients in your kitchen and most of the equipment too although a bottle capper is handy. You can make an acceptable batch of soda in screw top plastic bottles although I have heard they are more likely to explode.

I used a recipe for Virgin Island Ginger Beer from another Storey book, Homemade Root Beer Soda and Pop by Stephen Cresswell.

You need to grate 2 1/2 ounce of ginger root into a pot. Add the juice of 1/2 a lemon, 1 2/3 cups sugar and 2 quarts of water. Bring this to a boil and simmer uncovered for 25 minutes. Remove it from the heat and let it sit, covered, for another 1/2 hour. Pour 1 quart of cool water into a gallon jug the add the ginger mixture. Top off the jug with more water, leaving a 2 inch head space. You want the mixture to be just lukewarm. I needed to add cool water to get the temperature right. Shake the jug really well. Put 1/8 teaspoon ale yeast into 1/4 cup luke warm water. I used wine yeast but even plain bread yeast will do in a pinch. Wait about 5 minute and add the proofed yeast to the jug and shake it up again. Now you can bottle the soda. You will need 11 12 oz bottles. I like to use Corona beer bottles. They are clear so I can see that they are really clean and they don’t have screw caps. Of course this means that my kids are drinking from beer bottles. The kids, of course, think it’s very cool but I can see why another parent  might have a problem with it. Just pour the soda into a cup if you do. You will need to use a funnel and a strainer to do this. A piece of cheese cloth in a funnel works too. Now cap the bottles and you’re finished. I bought a bottle capper and a large supply of caps at a wine and beer making supply store. You can get one from Lehman’s but it is a lot more expensive. Now comes the hard part. Patience. You need to wait 36 hours to check for fizzies. If it’s warm, that may be long enough. In this weather, with no heat on in the house, it may take 72 hours to ferment. When you see bubbles, put the soda in the refrigerator or down in the basement to keep it cool. Otherwise the fermentation will continue and the bottles may burst. That has never happened to me. My kids drink it up as soon as it’s ready.

The question I am often asked is, “Why bother?” Soda is cheap enough and this is a lot of work for 11 bottles of pop. I could, after all, make a batch of lemonade and have it ready in 5 minutes. The easy answer is that I just like knowing how to do things. It is fun to try something and have it be sucessful. It’ s actually fun to try something and have it bomb, then go back to the drawing board and figure out where I went wrong. I like knowing that if I had to, I could manage to make do with very little and still have a good time.

We have had a couple of cold, rainy days so I got to a few things I wouldn’t have done when the sun was shining. I did some more inventory update. I am vowing to be better about keeping track of what we grow and consume. I know I did very well with tomato sauce. I will not run out before the next tomato run. I am however, nearly out of applesauce. We eat a lot of it and I usually cut the amount of oil in quick bread in half and replace it with an equal amount of applesauce. With the amount of quick bread we eat, the sauce goes very fast. I have too much jelly and jam and not enough canned berries. I did go too heavy on the spiced pears. I will end up giving some of them away.  The peaches are finally winding down.

The other thing I did was to watch a video series on dehydrating. It was so inspiring that I am now inclined not to can any vegetables. My family really does not like them and they are very energy intensive to pressure can. They also use up a lot of jars which are pretty expensive. In a post oil world, we are going to have to preserve food using as little in the way of fossil fuels as possible. I can run a full dehydrator for a quarter a day and don’t have to babysit it the way I would a canner. I will still pressure can meat although I plan to give jerky a try.

I also cleaned out my cookbook collection and got a dedicated folder for the recipes I downloaded last year using foraged foods. I have a lot of fiddleheads, elderberries and mushrooms to use up. The recipes are useless if I can’t lay my hands on them. I advoacted the OAR system in my book and I have to sure to use my own advice.

My final job is to finish my freezer and fridge clean up. The girls are on spring break right now and I have put them to work. Right now, I have a break in the rain so I will put everything else aside and head out to the greenhouse to talk nicely to my seedlings for a bit.

I am going to order some oxygen absorber packets today. Combined with vacuum sealing, this provides a nearly oxygen free environment for dried foods. I should have no trouble keeping stored food for the year I want. There were some recipes for mixes in this video. When vacuum packed, they provide a just add water meal, a real help when the power is out.

I know. I know. You haven’t even got a seed in the ground and I wat to talk about preserving but this is actually the time to start thinking about how to save what you grow.

Step one:  Do an updated inventory of what you ran short of or had an excess of so you know how you did. There is no point in planning to put up another 25 pints of jam (like I did) if you still have 18 jars left over. If you ran out of applesauce in February, you will obviously need to put up a lot more.

Look over your equipment: Is your canner in good shape? Sometimes the wire basket needs to be replaced. Can you find all of the other stuff like the funnel, jar lifter, spoons and so on? I keep all  my canning equipment in a bin so I never have to waste time hunting for something I really need. Pressure canners should receive a good going over. Is the seal in good shape? Do you have all of the small pieces? I hope you have a manual for each piece of equipment. If not, you can try going on-line and ordering one from the company. You really need the manual for your pressure canner. I keep all of mine together in a folder and store it with my cookbooks.

Jars: Did you run out last year? Now is the time to check out Craig’s list or free cycle and try to scrounge up some free ones. Check each jar before use for small nicks or cracks. There is no more onerous job than cleaning out the canner when a jar of sauce breaks and spill the contents all over the place. How about lids. I buy mine by the case as I want a few year’s worth put away. You can reuse the rings if they are not rusty or bent but the lids need to new. When they seal to a jar, the lids develop an indentation an may not seal again. I sure wish some enterprising family would start up a local factory that produced lids.

Dehydrators: If you dry any food, you should now be thinking about how you will store the food. It needs to be kept dry and in the dark. I used canning jars with some of those used lids. I mark used lids with a big X, made with an indelible marker so I don’t mix up new and used.

Freezer storage: I have tried all kids of containers for freezer storage. The thing that works the best is the environmentally sound. I like heavy duty plastic bags that I can suck the air out of. I actually have a pretty nifty system that sucks out the air and seals the bag on a heated strip but to be honest, most of the time I use a zipper bag and suck the air out of the bag with a straw. I stick the straw in one corner, sip up to the straw, suck out he air and, very quickly remove the straw and finish the seal. If I am just doing a few bags, it isn’t worth the trouble of setting up the bag sealer. I know it is better if I reuse plastic food containers but I always seem to have a problem with freezer burn when I do that. I do reuse the bags as often as I can but I still hate going to plastic bags.

A few random thoughts on preserving: Before putting my jars in the cellar this year, I am going to give them a good washing. I had a problem with mold on the surface of some jars that held sweet foods. I must have left sugar residue on them. What a mess! I had to cart them all upstairs, wash them and cart them back down. The mold wouldn’t hurt the food-it was well sealed inside-but it looked terrible and I coudn’t leave it there.

Get your freezer defrosted before putting up those first peas. Plan an eat it up couple of weeks where you finish up the last bits and drabs of freezer food. Do the same with your canned food.

If you need some guidance, don’t bother with the county extension service. At least in Massachusetts, there is no one on staff to do workshops or classes. I found good information on the USDA canning site. Ball has a good one too. Now is the time to update your resources. Old books may have outdated information. I have actually seen things recommended that are really not safe like inversion canning. Make sure you know you altitude so you can adjust canning times.

Be sure you know the best way to preserve different foods. You can’t can pumpkin or winter squash (they are too dense to reach the right internal temperature). Some things are better dried and some should only be canned for the best results. Storey has several good food preservation books.