In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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You may have noticed an anti-consumption undercurrent in my posts lately.

It’s not that I’m against shopping per se. Or buying things. But so much modern American spending is programmed and conditioned by the barrage of advertising that dominates our every waking minute. We waste money on trivial, disposable gifts despite being so stressed out over finances, and I am just as trapped by the madness as anyone.

As Christmas looms on the horizon, I am trying new finance hacks to spend more mindfully. I want to exchange my precious dollars for actual needs rather than desperate attempts to purchase happiness and acceptance. (Because all those ads scream in my face that I will NEVER EVER be good enough until I own their product or use their service.)

I’m sure everyone has heard of the Envelope System. I think it’s mandatory content in any financial management book! And while I have read many of those in my day, I had never actually tried it. The idea is to put your monthly budget, in cash, for some category – I picked groceries – in the envelope. When the cash runs out, you’re done spending in that category for the month. The end. Cash forces you to face hard limits (as opposed to the never ending opportunities of credit cards), leading to more careful choices whenever you spend.

Well, I quickly learned that for me, personally, this whole thing only works if I write down the price of everything going into my cart as I go through the store.

I mean, everything.

Otherwise I am “that” person in the checkout lane, awkwardly holding up everyone as I hunt for items to be voided from my purchase.

I use my phone’s “memo” app to record each item and its cost to the closest 50 cents. Every ten or so items, I tally the total, so I know roughly how much  my cart costs at any given point. Yes, yes – this means I am also that person, the one who stands in the middle of the grocery store aisles “playing” with her phone. It’s for a good cause, I swear.

The few times I have tried this, I definitely noticed a difference in my spending choices. Which is the whole point, right? I can clearly say this hack is “working” from that perspective. Faced with the choice of organic, hormone-free milk for my kids, or ready-made high-protein snack bars for me, the decision is easy. I’d rather spend a few bucks on better quality milk for them; I’ll just nosh on fresh veggies instead (which is, in fact, healthier than any processed food snack bar).

The other thing I quickly learned: I cheat.

Yes, really.

Even though, by definition, I am only cheating myself because this whole hack is self-imposed.

For example, we have no ATMs close by, so I never have cash for a whole month of groceries to put in my envelope. It turns out feeding a family of four takes a LOT of cash. I have tracked my spending by categories for over a decade now, and I always assumed we spent so much on groceries because I splurge on things like wild caught salmon, lion’s mane tea, almond flour, and the aforementioned organic milk and high-protein snack bars. But the USDA Cost of Food reports show that even a “thrifty” or “low-cost” food budget for a family of four is still a whopping sum. (And more cash than I ever have at one time!) So oops? I still end up using my credit card because the cash runs out so soon.

I also cheat by moving certain items to the “big box” shopping list. Sometimes this makes sense, because buying in bulk can be more cost effective. However, the big box trips are so expensive, I always use my credit card. (See previous note about not having a lot of cash on hand.) So the regular grocery bill ends up being less, preserving that precious cash. But I’m not buying fewer things…just spending more cleverly!

That said, despite the cheats, the hack still seems to be accomplishing the goal: greater mindfulness while shopping. For groceries, anyway. Don’t even ask about the Christmas shopping!

What hacks have you tried for more mindful shopping, and what were the results? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/16/2018

As 2018 draws to a close, I still had two more foraging posts planned. Both posts were going to cover tubers that can be harvested well into the late fall and early winter, as long the ground isn’t frozen solid.

This week: yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus). I had first identified this common yard weed back in July, when its spiky flowers clearly marked the plant’s location. However the small tubers underground are the real prize, and the part which is harvested when nutsedge is grown as a crop. (Here’s a photo of the tubers.)

The tubers are reported to be sweet and nutty flavored, hence their other names: earth almonds, or tiger nuts. I was very excited to excavate this wild food which appeared to be growing everywhere in my yard. Tasty free food. What could be better? I even tracked down a horchata recipe, so I would be ready when the time came.

A clump of yellow nutsedge

A clump of yellow nutsedge

You guys, I have nothing to show for my patience except for several muddy holes in my lawn.

I dug up three different clumps of nutsedge, certain I would find at least a few tasty nuggets clinging to the roots. No such luck! Every vaguely-tuber-looking lump turned out to be thick, heavy clay mud. No earth almonds anywhere.

Nutsedge roots - no tubers here!

Nutsedge roots – no tubers here!

I’m not sure what I did wrong, except that maybe I tried harvesting too early or too late. Or perhaps I misidentified the plant (although the leaves do have the triangular cross-section typical of yellow nutsedge). None of my go-to foraging books covered nutsedge at all, and while many blogs note its edibility I have yet to find a step-by-step foraging guide. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write one… if I ever succeed in finding them myself!


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Foraging Hack(berries), Week Ending 12/9/2018

This was the year of hackberry fail.

Unlike my typical “foraging fail” experiences, this time it’s not my fault.

I know where the hackberry trees are, and successfully harvested fruit last December. But this year, almost every tree sports bare branches. I blame the late spring frost that also killed most of the wild cherry blossoms in our area.

The common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a fairly, um, common tree in central Maryland. This tree is also known as the Northern hackberry. Southern hackberry (Celtis laevigata), or sugarberry, is closely related and produces sweeter fruit; unfortunately its range is further south so I cannot compare the two.

Hackberry trees are so common, in fact, I discovered a cluster of them growing in the wild portion of my yard earlier this summer.  While I was thrilled to find them, I was surprised to find they had no fruit. By summer, the fruit has normally set although not yet ripe. Then I realized – none of the hackberry trees on my typical routes had fruit. None.

Hackberry trees are (or should be) easy to spot in the winter, because the tiny berries cling to the branches long after the leaves have fallen. They can remain on the tree throughout the winter season, making the berries a valuable source of food when nothing else is available.

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry fruit is small, crunchy, and sweet. Most of the berry is the seed, which is eaten whole along with fruit. They have almost no moisture at all. The berries are very high in calories for their size, and contain carbohydrates, protein and fat. They are reported to get sweeter the further into winter they go. Most years, the challenge in gathering hackberry fruit is that the trees grow to 30 to 50 feet tall, leaving most of the berries out of human reach.

A Bowl of Hackberries

A Bowl of Hackberries

I finally located ONE singular young tree with berries a week ago, but the fruit tasted rancid rather than sweet.

Hackberry trees also stand out during other seasons due to the distinctive texture of their light gray bark. The best description for it is “warty”.

Warty Hackberry Bark

Warty Hackberry Bark

Even though I can’t talk celebrate a hackberry harvest this year, last year I harvested enough berries to experiment with hackberry milk. Here is the method I used:

Clean the berries, removing stems and any berries that look bad. (Wrinkly and oxidized are okay; rotten is not okay.) Measure twice as much water as berries by volume, and place together in a blender. A high powered blender would be best; my regular old kitchen model didn’t pulverize the fruit nearly as thoroughly as I would have liked. Strain out the solids. Depending on how fine the strainer is,  the milk can end up with the consistency of a thin liquid or a puree. Add 1 Tbs of maple syrup at a time, checking for taste. (This step is probably not needed for sugarberries.) The fluid and solids will tend to separate, so stir regularly as you enjoy your drink!

Mmmmm ... Hackberry Milk

Mmmmm … hackberry milk

You can also use hackberry milk in cooking, but I haven’t tried this yet. Hopefully next year I will get the chance!


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Your Brain on Exercise

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave raised the issue of cognitive function, and his comment inspired me to write a post on the tactics I have tried to keep my brain working at peak performance.

Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I realized I had to say on the subject. As a result, I will write a series of posts. (Because I hate blog posts that drag on and on and on…)

First up: exercise.

Researchers are still exploring the exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves the brain’s health, along with questions like what kind, frequency and duration of exercise are most effective. A quick internet search will turn up a slew of hits, and many books (for example Dave Asprey’s Head Strong) also cover the topic. According to studies, physical activity boosts cognition, mood and even memory. These benefits could be from improved blood flow and oxygen to the brain; increased neurogenesis; enhanced mitochondrial function; more or different neurotransmitters to connect the neurons; other things we haven’t discovered yet (or I haven’t read about yet, which is more likely); or some combination of the above.

I am discussing exercise first because it has so many benefits beyond just mental capacity, such as increased stamina and heart health, the self-confidence boost that comes with sticking to a workout routine, and fitting into your favorite jeans you haven’t been able to wear in over a year. (Yes, really!) Plus, exercise can be cheap or even free. A brisk walk outdoors is free. (By the same token, exercise has the potential to suck up every spare dollar to have, so your mileage may vary! Speaking of which, does anyone want to buy a gently used elliptical machine?)

DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified fitness professional (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once), and the workout routine described in this post is what works for ME. Please consult a medical professional before engaging in any new exercise, and consider speaking with a personal trainer for advice on the proper execution of these or any other exercises. No, YouTube videos do not count – which is why I have not included links below.

I first described my workout back in May, so miracle of miracles, I have stuck with it for over 6 months now! (I guess that is long enough to make it a habit.) I have tweaked my original routine slightly to ramp up the intensity without having to buy a heavier kettlebell (see previous note about how exercising can be expensive but doesn’t have to be!). My current kettlebell weighs in at 35 lbs, up from the 15 where I started way back when.

My workout, three days a week:

Hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per hip
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (this is anywhere from 15 to 17 jumps for me, depending on my energy level)
Donkey kicks – 20 reps per leg
Planks – high plank, side planks, and reverse plank, each for 45 seconds
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (by now I am panting)
Exercise Ball Bridge – 20 reps
Cat vomit – 10 reps of 20 seconds each, with a 10 second rest in between (I often do “Cat-Cow” stretches during the rest period)
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps (at this point my form gets sloppy so I really concentrate on proper technique)
Jump squats – 30 seconds (then I collapse)
Myotatic crunch (on my exercise ball) – 10 reps, with a four-count hold at the top of the crunch

Yes, this workout still kicks my abs. (Haha.)

Best of all, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete. So even at my busiest, I have no excuse to skip it.

Now for the real question: does it improve my brain function?

And the truth is, I have no clue. I don’t know how to self-administer tests for mental sharpness, and even if I did, I have no “before” metrics for comparison. Maybe I need more cardio to really see the difference, or maybe I should exercise longer for a noticeable improvement. (Or less often but with greater intensity, according to Mr. Asprey’s book.)

However, I do know that I love the dopamine hit from setting and meeting my fitness goals three days a week … and from being able to wear those jeans again!


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/2/2018

I had great plans for this week’s post.

I wanted to cover winter tubers which are great for foraging this late in the year. Unfortunately here in the mid-Atlantic we suffered from yet more rain this week. (While California burns, and then turns to mudslides in the rain… Remind me again how climate change isn’t “really” a thing?)

But I digress. Since localized flooding is occurring, I cannot dig up the roots this week. Heck, I can’t even find the plants in all the mud and silt and runoff. So instead, I will talk about a strategy for dealing with foraging disappointment: instead of hunting for the forage, bringing the forage to the hunter.

Meet Thelma and Jeff, my new hazelnuts (Corylus americana)!

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

(Sorry the photo is so blurry – my smart phone struggles to focus on objects that small!)

They are both cultivars of the American hazelnut: Thelma is a “Theta”, and Jeff is a “Jefferson”.

While American hazelnuts grow wild in this area, I have failed to find any in central MD. The last time I saw wild hazelnuts was last year, in West Virginia, while property hunting.  I didn’t know what they were at the time, but the plant’s features were so striking I took pictures for future identification.

Hazelnut Leaves

Hazelnut Leaves

Now I know what they were, and I’m very sorry not to have found any since.

Have I mentioned I LOVE hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly involucre

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly leafy coverings

Ultimately, I hope to use hazelnut flour to replace almond flour in my non-grain recipes, because I worry about the environmental impacts of almond cultivation in California, where most of the commercial almond crop is produced. Not so concerned that I would go back to eating grains, mind you, because of the severe pain they cause my body; but concerned enough to try growing or foraging my own replacement with a crop native to this area.

Unfortunately, hazelnuts can take several years to start producing, and Thelma and Jeff were much smaller than I thought they would be. I have never ordered a tree or shrub from a catalog before, and while I knew they wouldn’t be full grown it didn’t really dawn on me that they would be, well, almost invisible to the naked eye.

I mean, seriously. If I hadn’t told you there were hazelnut shrubs in the wire cages in this photo, you would never have noticed them there.

Two planted hazelnuts

Two planted hazelnuts

Since it will take a while (maybe a long while) for these little guys to produce, my days of hunting wild hazelnuts are not over yet! Maybe I’ll find something next year … 2019 or bust!


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 11/25/2018

I originally planned to skip this week’s post. (I’ll spare you the list of excuses… so when I need them in the future they will sound fresh and new!)

But I realized today that I was wrong last week, when I said the foraging season was drawing to a close. It’s not ending, merely changing.

Check out this patch of wild salad greens I found this morning!

Fall Salad Garden

Fall Salad Garden

Top notch chickweed and garlic mustard, enough to last me well into the winter. Let the foraging continue!


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The Case of the Mysterious Citrus, Week Ending 11/18/2018

It’s mid-November and the foraging season is winding down in the mid-Atlantic region. We had our first major snow last week – five inches locally! – which is unheard of, to have this much accumulation prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. [Insert gratuitous climate change remark here…]

But I am not done posting! This week I will share with you the case of the mysterious citrus: the single strangest wild forage I found the entire year. Like the chinkapins from last week, I have never found reference to this plant in the (mumble) foraging books I have read.

In fact, I had no idea that citrus of ANY sort could be grown in Maryland, much less occur naturally, of its own accord, in the wild.

Meet: the flying dragon citrus. Also known as the trifoliate orange (Citrus trifoliata or maybe Poncirus trifoliata). I first stumbled upon this spiky guy back in August while stalking the local pawpaw groves to determine which had the best fruit.

Mysterious citrus

Mysterious citrus

There was no mistaking the plant was citrus. But at the time, that was all I knew. I noted the soft downy surface of the green globe; its three-lobed leaf; and the wicked sharp thorns. (OK, maybe I felt them more than I saw them!) But… what was it?

And how did it get here? I was also baffled by how this plant ended up growing wild so close to my home. Did someone toss a fruit out their car window while driving through the woods? How do citrus normally spread anyway? None of it made any sense.

Fast forward another month. In late September, I attended the 3rd annual Pawpaw Festival in Frederick MD, hosted by permaculturist and published author Michael Judd. While touring the property, I noticed a citrus tree/shrub growing out in the open, in agricultural zone 7a/6b. I had recently purchased a Meyer lemon, which is only hardy to Zones 8 – 11 so it must be taken inside to overwinter. It was odd, I thought, to plant a citrus plant outside like this, but I failed to connect this tree, in a permaculture context, and the wild plant growing less than a mile from my house.

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

Over a month later, Mr. Judd (@permacultureninja) posted to Instagram the final clue to my puzzle – a name.

Flying.

Dragon.

Citrus.

I love the name, and even better, I love knowing that the name belongs to the soft fuzzy fruit and piercing thorns.

After the snow and ice last week, I decided to go check on my local flying dragon citrus (FDC). I was impressed to find that it didn’t just withstand the cold; it seemed to thrive. The frost damage to the neighboring foliage made it even easier to see the fruit and its dark green leaves against its dull brown surroundings. Flying dragon citrus is deciduous unlike the “regular” citrus plants which are evergreens. However these specimens kept their color long past everything surrounding it.

In the following photo, the green three-part leaves and ripe orange fruit stand out in stark contrast from the tree the citrus has gotten tangled in.

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

A lot of fruit had fallen from the plant already – again, the distinguishing characteristic of ripe fruit this late in the year. Any other fruit dangling within reach likewise fell from the tree with the slightest touch.

Underneath its branches, we found multiple offspring, demonstrating that this plant (or plants?) was very fertile.

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Since so many of the fruit were ripe, I felt it was my privilege, nay my duty, to take a few fruit to help spread the seeds to new locations (such as my yard).

This photo shows the size of an average FDC fruit compared to a key lime  in my hand.

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

In addition to the small size, note the lack of reflection on the wild fruit. While a certain amount of shine on the key lime could be a waxy coating used on commercial citrus, the FDC’s appearance is also muted by its soft downy skin.

The flavor of the FDC fruit is less piquant than a lime or lemon, yet more tart than an orange. The seeds in the ripe fruit are huge compared to the juice vesicles, similar to a bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) rather than the more common grocery store offerings (Citrus limon and the Citrus limon x latifolia hybrid which is the fruit most commonly sold as “lime”). The flavor has an underlying hint of spice which adds depth  beyond the simple “sweet” or “sour” we expect of citrus in our modern world.

And yes, I planted the oversized seeds. It’s what I do…