Recipes and Tips for Healthier Living and Smarter Budgeting

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Townhouse Gardening--What I've Learned

This is my first post in two years and three months, so if you thought I was finished with this blog, you're not alone! Life just got too busy for me to spend much time at the computer and I've been focusing on other things. But as fall approaches and I realize my gardening is drawing to a close for the season, I have been reflecting back on how far things have come and how much I've learned this past year about what I call "townhouse gardening." We never thought we'd end up in a townhouse, but it has been a blessing in many ways. However, when I first saw this tiny courtyard and realized my dreams for land would have to be postponed, my heart sank. Ugly rocks and cement was all I saw and it seemed too small to do anything with. Happily, over time my vision expanded as my imagination saw how it could be more. 
So if you, like me, want to garden but have only "a small bit of earth," read on... (See my list at the end of things learned so far.)

After building and filling a Square Foot Garden box (always a staple in our gardens), I turned my attention to other potential garden spots, focusing on areas that receive a lot of sun. I decided on three places and we cleared them of rocks. 

Two of the areas are shown in these first three pictures: the fenced-in place to the right of the stairs, and the area to the left of the front door. Thankfully, my husband was able to do most of the digging to loosen up the sad soil that has been smothered in rocks for who knows how long. (Now we're working on improving the soil, which process will include clearing another area soon for a compost pile.)

Five months ago I planted quite a few strawberry plants in this section--a total experiment, since summers are so hot here (triple digits for three or four months in a row). While most of the plants survived, they didn't get much bigger, so I recently opted to add other plants for ground cover and additional aesthetic appeal. Hopefully they'll spread well next spring and fill out this area.

At the back I added two lavender plants that smell lovely.

And interspersed among the strawberries I planted these fun sun roses. (The mesh effectively prevents the neighbors' cat from using this as a litter box.)

Last year I planted several things in buckets and some did better than others. This year the chard and basil (which was a volunteer) have done well all season. After my oldest daughter tried flowers from seed without enough success, we opted to fill them with flower plants instead. We have especially enjoyed the vinca, which has continued to bloom all summer and thrives in the high heat as long as we water it well every day. 

In the plot to the right of the stairs I planted more strawberry plants, which have thrived there. (Yay!) My second daughter planted sunflowers here as well, which are so fun to watch grow.

To the left of the stairs, for the second year, I planted tomatoes--with cilantro in the middle. It was very interesting and gratifying to see how much better the plants grew this year, after a winter of adding ash and charcoal to the soil. We'll keep working on it for next spring.

A couple months later later, the cilantro had grown taller than the tomato plants (here it is going to seed).

Behind the tomatoes we planted a row of marigolds for pest control and added beauty and they thrived beautifully in the early summer. Marigolds are always a great one to plant from seed!

In the garden box in front of the woodpile I first planted tomatoes and a pepper. Unfortunately, cockroaches ate up the pepper plant as well as everything else I planted there, except for tomatoes, squash, and some stevia. So I will be taking other measures next year, to protect against those beastly bugs. 

The tomato plants grew rapidly and thrived here, soon growing as tall as the woodpile.

Tomatoes plumping up!
And, while this is a poor picture, it shows how tall our tomato plants are now--taller than the fence behind it and nearly as tall as me!

So here are the five main things I have learned about townhouse gardening: 

1) Any improvement, no matter how small, makes a big difference quickly. 
2) It's less stress, much less overwhelming, and takes less time than a yard does (of course). 
3) It's less expensive to overhaul and maintain. 
4) It's easier to keep track of everything and know how each plant is doing. 

But here is the most important thing I've learned: 

5) If I can still garden with this small space, just about anyone can! No excuses! :)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Carrot Cake

Originally posted five years ago, this family favorite recipe has undergone a few changes over the years. It is even better now (in our family's opinion) by the substitution of honey for sugar and, in the frosting, raw sugar for powdered. Besides being delicious and satisfying, it also uses lots of carrots for those times when I need to use a lot up. And what a lovely way to eat carrots! (Zucchini can also be used with the carrots or in place of them.)

Original recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, p. 159:

Best-Ever Carrot Cake

4 beaten eggs
2 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. honey (or a little more, if you like your cake sweeter)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3 c. finely shredded carrots and/or zucchini (lightly packed)
3/4 c. oil

Allow eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease and flour 9 x 12" cake pan.

In large mixing bowl, stir together flour, honey, baking powder, cinnamon, and baking soda.

In medium bowl combine eggs, carrots, and oil.

Add egg mixture to flour mixture; stir until combined. Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted near centers comes out clean. Cool thoroughly.

Top with cream cheese frosting:

Cream Cheese Frosting

4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 c. butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla
A couple cups of raw sugar, to taste

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Spicy Chicken Stew

This is a brand new recipe for our family and already I see it making its way onto our Family Favorites list. We all loved it! It has the perfect mix of spices to make it delicious and interesting bite after bite. I found the recipe here and love how I can change it up each time by using whatever vegetables I need to. (In this case I didn't have carrots but needed to use up some celery and summer squash, to add to the frozen corn.)

The original recipe makes this in the crock pot, but could just as easily be made on the stove top. It would also be yummy without the chicken.

Depending on what's available I have served it with cheese, sour cream, salsa, cilantro, avocados, and tortilla chips.

Note on spiciness: For our family's tastes I have found that half the amount of spices is more than sufficient. If it ends up too spicy I add canned tomatoes and/or tomato sauce until it's more mild.

Spicy Chicken Stew

2 baking potatoes (about 1 1/2 lb.), peeled and cut into chunks (3 1/3 c.)
1 (10 oz.) package frozen sweet corn
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks (1 c.)
1 onion, thickly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (12.5 oz.) jar salsa
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chile powder
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, halved (about 1 lb.) and 4 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 10.5 oz.) (I used home-bottled chicken instead, which also gave me the broth I needed.)
2 1/2 c. chicken broth

Place potatoes, corn, celery, carrots, onion and garlic in slow cooker. Stir in salsa, salt, cumin, chile powder, and pepper. Distribute chicken evenly on top of vegetables and pour chicken broth over chicken. Cover slow cooker and cook stew on high for 4 hours.

Transfer chicken to a plate and shred with two forks into bite-size chunks; return to slow cooker. Serve warm.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bean Salad Salsa

When a friend of mine brought our family some chips and this "salsa," I knew I had to have the recipe! Each of my kids even likes it--and they're not all fans of beans, bell peppers, or onions--so that really says a lot! Even though it's a new recipe for us, it has already made its way firmly into the Family Favorites category. I replaced the white sugar with honey, omitted the hot pepper sauce, and didn't have cannellini beans, but made no other modifications. My friend prefers to half the oils: I like it either way. The original recipe can be found at

1 (15 ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 ounce) can kidney beans, drained
1 (15 ounce) can cannellini beans (or another kind), drained and rinsed
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 (10 ounce) package frozen corn kernels
1 red onion, chopped
1/2 c. olive oil
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
2 Tb. fresh lime juice
1 Tb. lemon juice
1 Tb. honey
1 Tb. salt
1 clove crushed garlic
1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 Tb. ground cumin
1/2 Tb. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. chili powder

In large bowl, combine beans, bell peppers, frozen corn, and red onion.

In small bowl, whisk together olive oil, red wine vinegar, lime juice, lemon juice, honey, salt, garlic, cilantro, cumin, and black pepper. Add chili powder and season to taste.

Pour olive oil dressing over vegetables. Mix well. Chill thoroughly, and serve cold.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Do You Use Agave?"

I get this question all the time when people find out that I don't use regular refined sugar anymore.

The short answer is, "No."

A slightly longer answer is, "I haven't ever felt the need because I'm used to using honey, which we always have a supply of" (gratefully).

And here is the long answer:

Agave isn't as healthful as many people believe. For one thing, many types of bottled agave nectar call it "raw" when, in fact, it is heat treated and therefore does not still contain its enzymes and nutrients--unlike actual raw honey (which is what I use). And also unlike raw honey, agave syrup is not a “whole” food, but rather a fractionated and processed food. In fact, the way it is processed is similar to how High Fructose Corn Syrup is processed! (link)

The reason agave nectar is touted as "low glycemic" and therefore better for diabetics, is because of "the unusually high concentration of fructose (90%) compared to the small amount of glucose (10%)." Interestingly enough, "Nowhere in nature does this ratio of fructose to glucose occur naturally." This article lists 9 ways that fructose is actually bad for the body and can lead to serious health conditions, since it has to be metabolized by the liver (instead of by every cell in the body, like glucose is).

Even Dr. Oz, a year ago, retracted his endorsement of this sweetener for the reasons mentioned above (see article here) and urges consumers instead, "to use the smallest amount [of agave] possible."

This site even makes the shocking statement that, "Agave nectar may just be the unhealthiest sweetener in the world. It makes regular sugar look healthy in comparison… and that is saying something."


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

New Information on Daily Aspirin Intake

I just read this in the news and thought I'd pass along the information for anyone who missed it. The basic lowdown is: "Someone taking aspirin with a low risk for heart attack or stroke can cause more harm than good." If you are at risk, taking aspirin daily can improve your situation, but if not, don't take it daily. See the above link for details.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Origins of the "35"

Last month I turned 35 and have been thinking about the origins of this blog, which began in 2010. It all started (as you can read here) when, in our lean Cincinnati years, people would learn that I spent only $35 a week on groceries (which often included other household items, like toilet paper or cleaning supplies) and wondered how on earth we, as a family of four, managed to survive on that. As I realized there was a genuine interest in learning to live and cook this way and that I might have a valuable thing to share, I finally accepted the challenge to blog about it. And thus Katrina's Kitchen ( the "35") was born.

To be completely honest, it was a great relief and a joyful blessing when my husband finished graduate school, obtained a full-time job, and we no longer had to live like church mice. (It was much less stressful being able to spend even $50 a week on groceries, then, because I had so strictly adhered to the $35 for so long.) I joyed in thinking about not having to live quite so frugally anymore.

And then 2013 happened. And 2014.

So in 2013 we moved across the state to live with my parents and young siblings for almost a year and a half while we worked to get our feet under us again, and a few months ago we were finally able to buy a home of our own again. While that is a blessing for which we are very grateful, things are very lean once more. Because of our experience in Cincinnati, earning less than $1,000/month, we are hopeful we can do it again, however, even though we are now a family of six. And part of making that possible is reverting back to my $35 a week grocery budget.

So how do we do that? Once again we have WIC, which is surprisingly helpful, are able to get weekly Bountiful Baskets, and are using food storage. That's really all there is to it. I cook almost everything from scratch, buy according to what's on sale any given week (or don't buy much at all some weeks, when not much of what I use is on sale) and we eat pretty well. Nothing fancy, but nearly every recipe on this blog is made with ingredients from the above sources. So, lots of vegetables, supplemented with wheat, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and beans. When there's a good opportunity outside of my regular grocery stores for bulk items that are being trucked in, such as frozen chicken or ground beef, I take advantage of that, too, and stock up my freezer.

We would totally qualify for food stamps, based on our income right now, except that we have too much in savings. Since that money is in savings, we don't consider it available and forget we even have it. But the government can't overlook it, so we don't qualify for assistance. While that makes it difficult for us, it also forces us to be independent, which we prefer to be anyway. It just means we have to adhere more strictly to our budget, pray more, count our blessings, and hope for a more generous future while we keep moving forward with faith.


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