Where the Deals Are

2 12 2008

My focus on this blog generally has been to show where local foods can be purchased here in the Skagit Valley. Price hasn’t really been much of an issue since it’s actually often less expensive to buy products and produce locally and, in the long run, it is better for our local economy. The greater economy, however, is affecting all of us in one way or another and it’s a good time to share what I know about the cost of eating.

One caveat about my information is that I have barely set foot in a standard grocery store for years. I occasionally go to Albert’s Red Apple and pick up a half gallon of Organic Valley milk or some toothpaste, but unless I really really need something out of season or I notice some great deal on an organic item in Haggen’s weekly flyer I’m pretty clueless about what the going rate is for anything. I do know that, except for loss leaders, grocery stores charge a lot for stuff.

I tend to buy things in bulk, seasonally, organic whenever possible and limit the ready-made and processed. I don’t use a microwave. We’re omnivores, but we eat mostly plants. There are two of us. We love cheese. We spend a lot of money on cheese. 🙂 Since I’m under-employed currently, we’ve made a few changes in our shopping (including cheese) and I’ll note those. So here goes, I’ll start with the big ticket items …

MEATS

Beef: Hemlock Highlands, unquestionably the most tender and flavorful beef out there. It’s a great value and I try to make many meals out of each cut every other week. We try to buy a quarter in the fall. The key here is buying it by the quarter, half or whole from your favorite valley rancher.

Chicken: Not in the budget. We used to purchase a chicken (~$18) or so per year from Skagit River Ranch, but they’ve stopped raising them for the market due to the cost of organic feed. We have a couple of Ranger chickens and some parts in the freezer from special sales, but chicken is generally unaffordable. I won’t compromise quality here so no chicken. (Although the co-op just had breasts with ribs for $2.50/lb. when buying the case. Not sure if that is still on.)

Fish: Costco is the go-to for wild-caught salmon fillets (varies ~$6.99/lb.), Trident salmon patties and *gasp* Trident fish sticks (60 count 4 lb. ~$13). I’ll also buy the farmed trout ($3.99/lb.) there for grilling and smoking. Our local fish markets are also a good source. Kirkland albacore tuna is a good deal. I’ll buy a couple of Trader Joe’s tuna in olive oil ($2) as well. (The fish sticks are a recent addition, taste pretty good and make great quick fish tacos. They’re inexpensive and yes, processed and even breaded, but we’re poor and it’s real fish at least.)

Pork: Silvana Meats or Tenneson Family Farm for all our piggy needs. I get bacon ‘ends and pieces’ since they’re less expensive ($3.89/lb.) and we use bacon only sparingly as a flavoring component. Great sausages and landjaeger too if we’re feeling flush. Inexpensive ground pork from which to make sausage when not.

DAIRY

Milk: Golden Glen Creamery gives us our two half gallons (or so) of milk per month. At $3.50 they’re usually less expensive than the grocery organic equivalent. It mostly goes to Keith’s coffee or baking. Cash and Carry usually has the best price on coconut milk (~75¢ per can).

Butter: I used to buy the organic butter at Costco, but it’s from Aurora so I’m not paying a premium just so they can stretch the rules and abuse their cows anyway. I buy the regular four 1-pound blocks (~$8.50) and will change as soon as they do. As a treat, I’ll buy Organic Valley pasture butter from the co-op for fresh bread use only. 😉

Cheese: Costco – Tillamook extra sharp vintage cheddar, Dutch Gouda, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano and Jarlsberg. Occasionally Beecher’s or something else pricier. I’ve knocked down the cheese bill lately a little by buying the 2 pound brick of Frigo mozzarella and smoking it, but our food budget just goes to heck in this category. *sigh*

Eggs: We have chickens now so I don’t buy eggs, but I used to buy the Wilcox Omega-3 eggs (18 for ~$3) from Costco. They’re a good value. They’re much cheaper than keeping chickens what with organic feed and scratch and building coops and whatnot. 🙂

Yogurt: Nancy’s plain honey whole milk yogurt in the big 64 oz. tub from the co-op. It keeps well, can be flavored with jam or fruit, diluted with water for baking, and costs about $5. Do not waste money on tiny containers of flavored lowfat yogurt, the food value is in the whole milk. Reuse a small container to take it to work for lunch. If it’s on sale, buy two!

STAPLES

Flour: Pendleton Grain Mills Power® brand flour (50# sack ~$28) from Cash and Carry. It’s not organic, but it’s not GMO and it’s milled in Oregon. When I can afford it, I buy organic from Bob’s Red Mill either from the co-op or from the mill store. I can’t afford Fairhaven Mill’s flour anymore either. 😦

Whole grains: Wheat berries, barley, rye and oat groats from our wonderful co-op bulk section or Bob’s mill store. Thick rolled oats (25# sack ~$14) from Cash and Carry.

Legumes: Beans, lentils, peas, etc. from the co-op in bulk when I can’t get to Quincy. I cook up a pot of beans in the pressure cooker nearly every week.

Rice: Daawati organic brown Basmati rice (15 lb. sack ~$15?) from Costco. Others bulk from the co-op or from 99 Ranch in Edmonds (it’s Lynnwood, if you ask me).

Pasta: Costco carries organic Garofalo pasta including whole wheat spaghetti (3kg ~$8). Trader Joe’s also has delicious whole wheat pastas, but they’re more expensive.

Sugar: 50# raw cane sugar (~$35) from Cash and Carry. I whizz it up in the food processor when I need finer grind. This has replaced the organic fair-trade Wholesome Sweeteners sugar from Costco (10 lb. bag $8). (This one hurts because we gave up both organic and fair-trade, but at least it’s less processed and packaged.)

Bread: Pretty much all home-baked since good bread is otherwise too expensive. I’ll occasionally buy the 90 count corn tortilla pack from Costco for $2.99. (Fish tacos, right?) I vacuum pack and freeze them in smaller quantities. Also organic tortilla chips occasionally.

Oils: Coconut oil and/or Full Spectrum shortening on sale from the co-op for various uses including oiling the cutting board and seasoning cast iron. I get them at the co-op. My cooking and deep frying oil is grapeseed oil (3L ~$15) from Cash and Carry since it’s cheaper than organic high heat canola. Regular canola is usually genetically engineered. Organic EVOO (1.5L ~$13) comes from Costco and is so dear that it’s only used on salads and for bread anymore.

Nuts: Costco for whole nuts and peanut butter. Adam’s crunchy is $7 for the 5 lb. tub. I keep the nuts in the freezer or in vacuum-sealed canning jars. (I wish I could find pine nuts that weren’t from China! *grr*) Also whole walnuts in the shell from the co-op just because they’re so good and from Washington.

Spices: Costco, Penzey’s or the bulk section at the co-op. Kosher salt (3 lb. box $1.87) is least expensive at Cash and Carry.

PRODUCE

Fruit: Seasonally usually the best price is directly from the orchard. My favorite is Jones Creek Farm. We also pick organic blueberries up at the Johnson’s U-pick in Rockport ($2/lb.). Strawberries come from Sakuma and yesterday’s can be half price and are great for jam. Winter is citrus season and I buy only organic from the co-op so I can zest or candy the peels. I save mandarin peels for spicing up tea.

Vegetables: Farmer’s Markets, CSA, farm stands and homegrown! Freeze, dehydrate and can. I won’t compromise on organic potatoes (varies, 50# box $32), but I’ll buy BC hothouse red bell peppers from Costco (~$1 each) in winter. Costco also carries organic frozen peas, corn and beans! They also have S&W organic canned diced tomatoes (8 cans $7*) and tomato paste ($6 dozen). *$2.50 off coupon until 12/17!

Foraged: Miner’s lettuce, nettles, wild berries and mushrooms are used plenty in my kitchen. Free!

HOUSEHOLD

Cleansers: Baking soda (12 lb. $5) and white vinegar (2 gal ~$3.50) from Costco. CountrySave dish soap from the grocery store or co-op. Either CountrySave or Kirkland environmentally friendly laundry detergent. Sorry, can’t find the receipt.

Pet Food: This used to be Canine Caviar for both cat ($35!) and dog ($50!), but now it’s Kirkland brand ($13 and $26) all the way. The dog also gets a daily Kirkland glucosamine pill tucked into peanut butter each morning.

Coffee, Tea, Wine: These are consumed, but generally not purchased. My mother provides spoils from all her travels and her wine clubs.

Okay, those are the ‘highlights’ more or less. This blog post would be a marketer’s dream except there’s not very much in that processed category. Also, you’d think I know what we spend on food monthly, but I don’t really since some things last a long time. I usually tally it up at the end of the year when I do my taxes, but last time (and the first half of this year) the budget was pretty free-wheeling in the food category.

I realize this was a tedious post, but I was trying to illustrate that it’s possible to eat good mostly organic healthy food and source much of it locally even though one is poor. 🙂 Hopefully by including some of the prices I was able to indicate where many of the best deals are to be found locally. Yes, I know that many are at Costco, but the cost of membership is quickly recovered in savings. Also don’t overlook the ethnic groceries and the scratch and dent corner at places that carry organics like Fred Meyer. I haven’t been to the Grocery Outlet in years, but I used to go before I got all ‘picky’. I’ve heard there are some organics once in a while. I plan on checking them out.





Root Cellar and Pantry Spaces

29 11 2008

It’s interesting how something low tech and simple can make such a huge difference in the day to day operations of a household. The refrigerator is indispensable, but a root cellar really adds another dimension to food storage. Anything that requires a cool humid environment will do quite well in a root cellar.

Pumphouse root cellar

The pumphouse converted to a root cellar

First you need the appropriate space, of course. Most of us here in the PNW don’t have a root cellar dug in the back yard. One of the reasons for this, at least here Upriver, is lots of rain. Those of you with sump pumps in your basements will know what I’m talking about. Have a look around the house and outbuildings and see what types of spaces you have available.

Ideal root cellar temps are 32F - 40F with 95% humidity. This photo was taken in August - not ready yet!

I put a thermometer with a humidity sensor into our well pumphouse for a while and found that it had pretty good storage conditions. It’s usually about 5 degrees below ambient and in winter holds at about 35F – 40F since we keep a small heater in there to keep the pipes from freezing. We have a pressure tank so humidity is about 88% on average. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good for storing most things for a while. I’m not trying to keep my fall harvested carrots until spring, but I can store potatoes and cabbages for a few months and free up some space in my refrigerator.

Wrap cabbages in a moist cloth since they need extra humidity.

Wrap cabbages in a moist cloth since they need extra humidity.

A good article on root cellaring can be found at Mother Earth News. It’s written by Mike and Nancy Bubel who wrote Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables. Another idea might be a cold box which could be workable even in an apartment. The useless window above the sink perhaps?

The wrapped cabbages are kept in a cooler with the lid cracked open - ventilation is important!

The wrapped cabbages are kept in a cooler with the lid cracked open - ventilation is important!

Another useful space is, in my case, a closet under the stairs. This is the coolest place in the house and stays somewhere in the neighborhood of 50F – 60F most of the year. It is also dry. Here I can store large sacks of oatmeal, flour, sugar and onions. I picked up a box of sweet potatoes and it seems to be the perfect conditions for them too.

The coat closet, also under the stairs, was converted into a baking pantry with shelves shortly after we moved in. There I keep totes with my baking flours, spices, pasta, rice and legumes. It’s a great stash for nuts, dried fruit and chocolate. An article about stocking a pantry at MEN can be found here and indepth information from Sharon Astyk’s blog. You’ll notice a new category in my blogroll for pantry blogs as well. Feel free to suggest your favorites!

Keep in mind that it’s really best to store only what you use. It’s easiest to start by stocking up on the non-perishables staples and go from there. I don’t keep MRE’s or other freeze-dried meals since we don’t eat that type of thing. I do keep some wheat berries because I have a flour mill and I bake all our bread. I also keep a 50 lb. sack of bread flour. None of it is stored only for emergencies, it is part of our daily fare and is used and replenished as needed. No money is saved if food gets tossed because it didn’t get used!

Where do you start? I don’t know, the big pack of toilet paper from Costco? An extra couple of cans of tomatoes, tuna or soup during the next shopping trip. If you have a root cellar, get a box of potatoes. Call around to the potato farms or stop in at Norm Nelson.

50 lbs. of slightly bunged up organic potatoes discounted to $25!

If you’re Upriver, get in on the buying club that Cindy Palacios set up. This is one of the first steps while waiting for the establishment of the Upriver Co-op. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept buying clubs, here is a recent article. Orders need to be in by 2:00pm on the 1st Tuesday of every other month to start. Pickup will be on the following Friday. Pickup will be at Marblemount Community Center’s Pavilion or another agreed on location. Contact me for Cindy’s contact information if you do not have it.

I’ve crammed a lot of information into one post already so I’ll save my suggestions on where to buy what for the next post. Meanwhile look around and see what types of storage spaces you have and also check your existing stores for what you need to round out your supplies.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends.





Upriver Community

21 11 2008

The shrinking economy has brought about much speculation about how we’ll be living in 6 months, next year and even further down the road. My favorite crank James Howard Kunstler fictionalizes one kind of future in his novel World Made By Hand. The news has suggested we’ll all be isolated and hunkered down in front of the TV as it’s the cheapest form of entertainment. People are stocking up on guns and ammo. Wal*Mart will be the only food supplier or there’ll be no food except what we can grow in our personal victory gardens. Food riots? More economic stratification? Outright collapse? Who knows!

Personally I don’t find fear mongering very useful. We can, however, examine various possibilities and they can help motivate us to work toward a positive outcome.

We don’t have a lot up here, but we do have community. We also have the unique problem of how to connect 5000 or so people that are spread out along the 50 mile stretch of Highway 20 from Newhalem to Birdsview and beyond. We’re diverse. We have Tarheels, back-to-the-landers, retirees, communes, city folk, old hippies, new hippies, teenagers, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and every stripe in between. Within our diversity, we all have a few things in common: We love the Upriver area despite its challenges and we all have to drive Downriver to meet some of our needs. We do have our free monthly paper and we can still sometimes pick up the Courier Times at Albert’s, but there just hasn’t been any way for us to keep in touch or disseminate news amongst ourselves.

Hopefully by next year that all can change. KSVR‘s General Manager Rip Robbins was up here last month telling us about his exciting new project … for us! He has applied for a federal grant and since we’re under-served (we knew that), we’re eligible for a public radio station. Local radio! For us, by us. With the school involved, teens could host their own music shows. The rest of us can have local talk and news programming, some NPR shows, and very importantly broadcasts from the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Imagine! Radio reception in the house and from a local station no less.

So how is it that I knew about this and you didn’t? Well, I haven’t seen you at our monthly AWARE meetings now have I? Rip Robbins was there last month and Michelle Coda also gave a presentation about the nascent Upriver Coop. (A little bird has been twittering about the prospects of a coop blog for keeping us all updated on that front as well.) Last night we learned about a campaign for public financing for Supreme Court Justices in Washington. It was a fun and informative discussion. Honest!

So there you have it! I expect you to make a New Year’s resolution to interact with your community. Come to the next AWARE meeting on January 15th. If you can’t wait that long, there’s a tentative date of December 1st set for an opportunity to find out how to appeal your recent property assessment at a meeting hosted by AWARE at the Senior Center with Commissioner Sharon Dillon and a representative from the Board of Equalization. I’ll update here when I know for sure on the date.

So while Wall Street is going in the tank and people are finding it harder to make ends meet, let us meet and support each other.

Before you drive Downriver to shop for Christmas, stop by Sauk Mountain Gallery, Sauk Mountain Pottery, M Gallerie and our other local shops first. You might just save yourself a trip *and* make a local merchants holiday brighter.

Let’s meet monthly and discuss our Upriver issues.

Let’s let our imaginations fly and plan some radio programming. Get the kids involved!

While we’re planning, we can also plan our modern victory gardens and we can plan on a CSA share next spring from Jericho Farm.

Check out some of the other farmers, ranchers and producers that I’ve featured on this blog over the past year and see where you can buy local food. After all, we don’t have a Wal*Mart here and, frankly, we don’t need one.

Oh and, if you stocked up on guns and ammo, well, let’s go plinking! 🙂





Good Mews for Little Poopers

30 10 2008

Last month we got a new kitten, Dax, after becoming abruptly catless back in July. He’s been settling in nicely, but we did need to quick pick up some litter after a week or so. Kale pretty much used the great outdoors, but our new little guy isn’t ready for that sort of responsibility yet.

While running our errands, we popped into our favorite pet store Walker’s Healthy Pet and picked up some kitten chow (First Mate) and more of the usual litter. Once we got home and I was looking over the receipts, I saw that we’d just paid about $1/lb. for something to crap in! What?! Usually we get it at Skagit Farmer’s Supply and I recalled it costing about $6 per bag.

With the current distressing changes in the economy, not to mention our budget, this was not a reasonable use of our pennies. Since I didn’t want to open the bag, we played around with sand from the beach. This had marginal success. Dax liked it just fine, but it was heavy in the box and didn’t absorb any odors.

The next time we were driving around, we stopped in at Whatcom Farmer’s Supply up on the Guide to have a look. There was our usual cat litter at a more reasonable $8, but the price still had risen from last winter or whenever I’d purchased my last bag. So there we were, staring at an assortment of overpriced pelletized litters and unsuitable clumping (bad for kitty lungs) or clay (high mileage rocks, bad for septics) litters.

Oh, but what have we here? Crown Animal Bedding in the “small” 25 lb. bag for $8.66. Some pets would rather sleep on it, but they had me at “absorbs ammonia odor” and “biodegradable”. Canby, Oregon? OK!

At home, we pour it out and I realize that I recognize it. A little research and I discover that it is, in fact, made by the same folks that make Good Mews cat litter. It’s pelletized from recycled newsprint so, until the last newspaper is replaced by web-only news delivery, it should be available.

Dax christened the new litter kitten-approved!

Next time we’ll pick up the 40 lb. bag for $11.49. I’ll update here when I see where it is carried locally. I assume Skagit Farmers Supply will have it, just not by the cat litter. Good Mews is widely available in grocery stores and SFS.





There’s no free lunch, but …

14 10 2008

… breakfast can be pretty cheap!

We’ve been eating oatmeal every weekday morning for a year or two since it’s quick, easy, healthy, variable and inexpensive. It’s not exciting, but I can manage to muster up dog food and people food while waiting for coffee instead of the other way around. Also, while it’s technically the same breakfast every morning, it’s really quite different depending on whether it’s walnut blueberry, peach cardamom, almond date, or apple cinnamon.

Since I refilled my oatmeal supply yesterday, I thought I’d examine more closely the cost of breakfast. For a long time, I’d buy Bob’s Red Mill extra thick cut oats (organic) from the bulk section at the co-op. They’re a pretty good deal at something like a dollar per pound. Whenever we’d get down to the mill store in Milwaukie, I’d grab a 25 pound bag. Recently I discovered that Cash and Carry in Bellingham carries Bob’s oats in 25 pound bags as well. Unfortunately they don’t have the organic, but at least they have the thick cut and $14.28 seemed like a good deal to me.

Not too far from the oats, I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before: a 50 pound sack of raw sugar! I tend to get raw sugar as a bit of a splurge and set it out for company coffee since it’s fairly pricey so our “house sugar” has been Wholesome Sweeteners organic cane sugar which I buy from Costco for $7.99 for a 10 pound bag. I also get regular C&H brown sugar which is $2.79 for a 2 pound bag. Well, $34.68 is a bit to spend on sugar all at once, but it can be used instead of both of the others and at 69¢ per pound is a pretty good deal. No, it’s not organic and it will color some of the paler foods, but I can compromise a bit. In fact, the budget dictates pretty much that I have to! At least it’s less processed than both white and brown sugars, simplifies my pantry, and gives me one giant recyclable paper sack instead of many smaller plastic packages.

How do I store these giant sacks of oats and sugar? Right next to the giant sack of flour in my office closet! It’s a cool, dry and dark location and relatively handy to the kitchen. I keep my flours in large Rubbermaid tubs and will most likely get another for the sugar once I open the bag. It helps keep the mess down and provides some protection.

Oh yeah, back to breakfast.

I generally make two servings because there’s two of us, but I did the math for one serving so it can be easily multiplied for each family situation.

3 ounces (3/4 cup) oatmeal = 10¢

1/2 tablespoon butter = 3¢ *

1 ounce frozen blueberries = 12¢

1/2 ounce walnuts = 15¢

1/2 ounce sugar = 2¢

So apparently, besides being the answer to life and everything, 42 cents is the price of a healthy oatmeal breakfast! Of course, the price varies depending on add-ins, but you get the idea. It’s unlikely that any pouch of instant oatmeal would provide so much whole food nutrition for that price. Besides the options mentioned above, I will also often substitute 1/4 cup of oatmeal with 1/4 cup of kasha in a 2 serving batch. I like the nuttiness that the buckwheat imparts and it raises the protein level as well. By switching up fresh and dried fruits, different types of nuts, and different spices, it seems like the variations are limitless. At least limitless enough to not need to have the same thing every morning.

Then there’s oatmeal cookies …

* Butter purchased at Costco $8.49 for 4 pounds (this went up $1 in a month!), 3 pound Kirkland walnuts for $14 and change purchased last spring, and U-pick organic blueberries at $2/pound