From the Frugal Kitchen: How to Make Bread-and-Butter Pickle Slices

This easy and delicious recipe for bread & butter pickles is perfect for a beginner. Regardless of your skill level, you’ll produce canned pickles that you’ll be proud to serve. Because of the high acid level in pickled foods, you can process them in a pot of boiling water, rather than a pressure canner. And packing slices into jars is much simpler than organizing whole pickles like dills or sweet gherkins to fit neatly into a jar. These pickle slices are nice in sandwiches, chopped in tuna and pasta salads, or eaten on their own.


Look for cucumbers that are meant for pickling or that have been picked when they are no bigger around than 1-1/2 inches. If you are doing large-scale canning, ask your produce vendor if you can buy in bulk. This year, I found a 25-pound box of organic pickling cucumbers for $12. Even after discarding a number of bruised vegetables, that was enough to make over 14 quarts (28 pints) of pickles.

This recipe makes five pints.

You will need:

2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups cider vinegar (5% acidity)
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp celery seed
1 Tbsp mustard seed
1-1/2 Tbsp mixed pickling spice (cinnamon stick, ginger, mustard seeds, cloves, peppercorns, chilies, etc.)
3-1/2 pounds cucumbers, cut into 1/4″ slices


Start heating your boiling water canner. This should be tall enough that your jars will be covered by at least one inch of boiling water and there must be additional room (2-3″) to avoid splashing during the boiling process. It should also have some sort of rack on the bottom on which to set the jars. Remember that your jars will displace water as you submerge them.


In a 5-quart pot (non-aluminum), combine sugar, vinegar, water and spices. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar.


Add cucumber slices. Return to a boil, stirring gently and trying to submerge slices as they cook.


When the pot returns to a boil, boil for 90 seconds, then remove from heat. The slices should have changed from a bright cucumber green to a darker pickle green.


Using tongs or a slotted spoon, fill hot jars* with pickles slices, then fill each with pickling liquid, leaving 1/8″ headspace. (You may have extra brine; you can refrigerate this up to a week if you are making another batch soon.) Wipe rims clean with a damp paper towel and add lids and rings.


Process in a boiling water canner — 20 minutes for quarts, 10 minutes for pints. Begin timing when the water has returned to a boil after you submerge your jars.

Using a jar lifter, remove jars to a folded kitchen towel. Let cool 24 hours and make sure the jars have sealed. The lids should be sucked down in a such a way that they won’t “pop” when you press on them. If not, you can add a new lid and process again, or store your pickles in the refrigerator. Sealed jars can be stored one year or more. Remove the rings for storage to avoid them rusting onto the jars. (I usually put a ring back on if I am giving as a gift, in order to avoid accidental opening during transport.)


*Hot foods should go into hot jars to avoid shocking and potentially cracking the glass. You can heat your jars before filling them by placing them in the boiling water bath as it heats up, or by running them through the dishwasher or using the dishwasher’s dry cycle.

Why I Love the County Fair

It’s the middle of August, which means that my hometown is playing host to the county fair.

I’ve always loved the fair. As a boy, I loved it for the rides and attractions: the Ferris wheel, the Spider, the Fun House, the games. As a teenager, I loved it as a place to take dates and to hang out with friends. But as an adult, I love it as a showcase of the skills and talents possessed by my friends and neighbors, and as a lingering slice of Americana. When I walk onto the fairgrounds, I feel like I’m walking back in time.

Nearly every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve made the annual trek to wander the grounds, petting the pigs and goats, looking at the vegetables and preserves, admiring the photography and art, and to watch the rodeo. It’s rare these days to find a place that highlights the work of the average person. Most of what we see is mass-produced and mass-marketed — “homemade” seems to be a dying art. But at the county fair, homemade reigns supreme.

If you’ve never watched a group of junior high schoolers show the sheep they’ve raised, you’re missing out. Around here, llamas are a big deal:


Because the Willamette Valley remains an agricultural region, there are plenty of vegetables on display at the fair. You can find rows of garden-grown peppers and carrots and corn. My favorite, though, are the freaks of nature:


From time-to-time, I even show stuff that I’ve made. It costs nothing to enter the art and photography competitions, yet there’s the chance to win big ribbons and small cash prizes:


I’ve been encouraging Kris to enter her preserves in the food competitions, but she hasn’t accepted the challenge yet. I think it’s only a matter of time before she brings home some blue ribbons of her own.

The county fair makes me happy — it’s evidence that there are still people who make and grow things with their own hands instead of just consuming. (I’m always reminded of Action Girl, for some reason.)

From 1947, here’s a cheesy short film extolling the virtues of a day at the fair.


I know that in some places — Minnesota, for example — it’s the state fair that’s important, but for me it’s all about the Clackamas County Fair.

Pick Your Own: A Brief Guide to the Berry Patch

Picking berries is one of my favorite parts of summer. Kris and I grow much of our own fruit, and we’re snacking from June to September. Our garden includes strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, gooseberries, marionberries, boysenberries, lingonberries, elderberries, currants, apples, prunes, pears, and a whole slew of vegetables. It’s a summertime cornucopia!

Not everyone has the time, space, and energy to grow their own food. Even if you don’t have a garden, it’s easy and fun to pick fresh produce from local growers. It can save you money, too. is a site devoted to helping people find U-pick fruit and vegetable farms. The site features:

Readers in the Portland area should check out the Tri-County Farm Fresh Produce Guide. Most major metropolitan areas probably offer a similar resource.


Kris and I have been picking fruit together for almost twenty years. In the summer of 1989, when we were first dating, we made a couple trips to pick strawberries and peaches. We still make trips to berry farms from time-to-time, but mostly we harvest the fruit we raise ourselves. Here are some berry-picking tips we’ve gleaned over the years.

    1. Decide when to pick. I like to pick in the morning when the air is cool. For jams (or berries to be dried), Kris likes to pick in the afternoon because the sun intensifies their flavor.
    2. Dress appropriately. Wear work shoes because you will step on berries and stain them. A lot of berries have thorns, so you might want to wear long sleeves. Some people like to wear fingerless gloves. For those of you who are apiphobic like me, there might be bees.
    3. If possible, choose a place that doesn’t spray their berries. This is safer, and means you can get away with less washing. Less washing means less work for you, and means fewer broken berries.
    4. Strike up a conversation with the farmer who owns the land. It’s a great way to learn about other berry farms in the area. He might also give you advice on the best spot in the berry patch.


  1. Take a friend (or a spouse) so that you have somebody to chat with while you work. If you’re serious about picking, you might want to leave young children at home. If you’re doing it just for fun, bring them along. They’ll love it!
  2. Bring plenty of containers. It’s better to have too many containers than not enough. Our favorite berry-picking container is a plastic milk jug with the top corner cut off. We string a length of soft nylon cord through the handle so that we can hang the jugs from our necks. This keeps both hands free for picking.
  3. Be sure to look under leaves. Our raspberries are sneaky little devils, often trying to hide behind leaves and vines. Blueberries and strawberries do this, too. Be thorough.
  4. Work methodically. Start at one side of the plant and work around, picking all of the ripe fruit. With blueberries, for example, I start at the base of each branch and work out-and-back, recursively. (You geeks know what I’m talking about.) Haphazard picking takes longer!
  5. When you’ve filled a bucket or two, pour the berries into a flat container of some sort, otherwise the fruit at the bottom will get squished.
  6. After you’ve finished, use the rest of the day (or, at the very latest, the following day) to process your berries, to do whatever it is you’re going to do with them: dry them, freeze them, turn them into jam; bake scones or muffins, take them to friends.

GRS-reader Serena wrote recently to rave about her trip to the berry patch.

Thanks for the post on strawberries — it inspired a family outing today to a local farm and it was a blast. Picking berries is nice for those of us who live in apartments/condos — we don’t have a garden, or even a yard, so taking the time to go out to a real farm and get to play in the dirt and eat fruit right off the plants is amazing and important. I even made strawberry freezer jam (with my son’s help) and it was great!

Picking berries can be a zen-like experience. The past few weeks have been stressful for me, but last night as I was harvesting our blueberries, I was able to lose myself in the quiet, methodical repetitiveness of it all. It was relaxing. (The peace was only disturbed by a rowdy murder of crows that gathered for a debate in the branches of a nearby locust.) Best of all, when I was finished I had six cups of blueberries for fresh eating!

Make no mistake: picking berries is work — but it’s fun work. There’s always the farmer’s market if you like the idea of farm fresh local produce, but you don’t have the time or inclination to pick it yourself. It’s usually not a bargain, but it’s certainly better quality than the fruit than you’ll find in most stores. Happy snacking!


[Photos courtesy of GRS-readers Jen and Serena]

Simple Homemade Chicken Stock Using a Supermarket Rotisserie Chicken

In our house, rotisserie chickens from the grocery store are a time- and effort-saver. A whole fryer chicken usually sells for less than $1/pound. A typical rotisserie chicken is about double the cost, but we often get three weekday meals off it, so it’s worth it to me. The chicken meat is used in salads, pasta dishes, quesadillas, sandwiches, pot pies and stews and, when the carcass is picked clean, it’s time to make chicken stock. (Of course, you can also do this with a chicken you’ve roasted yourself.)

Chicken stock from scratch couldn’t be easier. It allows you to control the flavor and salt content, and it freezes well. You will need:

  • 1 chicken carcass with some skin/meat left on the bones
  • 1 yellow onion with skin
  • 2 carrots, ends trimmed off but not peeled
  • 1-2 ribs celery, preferably with the leaves
  • 1 bay leaf

Put the carcass in a 4-quart pot. Cut the onions, carrots and celery into a few large pieces and add to the pot. Cover with cool water. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce heat to a slow simmer. Let it simmer away until you have about 1 quart of liquid left (about 90 minutes or so). Then cool slightly (for safety) and strain the stock into a freezer-safe container (be sure to leave room for expansion as it freezes). You can also let the broth to cool in the fridge so you can skim off the fat. Discard bones and vegetables.

A few tips:

  • The onion skin adds a rich brown color to the stock as well as flavor. The celery leaves add a depth of flavor too. I sometimes keep a Ziploc bag of onion skins and celery leaves in the freezer so I will be sure to have them when I’m making stock.
  • The holy trifecta of carrots, onion and celery is what the French call mirepoix (pronounced “meer-pwah”), but feel free to experiment. If I have leftover scallions, parsley, shallots, turnips or other vegetables handy, in they go. There are no real rules for making stock — only guidelines.
  • Carrots add sweetness; reduce them if you like an even more savory stock.
  • Play with herbs and spices. Add a few peppercorns if you like a bit of spice. Thyme goes well if you’re using turkey bones. Think of what you’ll make with the stock and season accordingly.
  • I prefer to make my stock without adding salt (although there is some in the store’s spice mix) and then salt to taste later when I am using the stock in a recipe.
  • Set a timer to remind you to check the stock periodically.
  • If you’re in a climate where you can grow your own bay leaves, this recipe is even cheaper to make.

Homemade chicken stock beats even the best canned/cartoned stocks. I haven’t experimented with making beef, vegetable or seafood stock, but it’s on my list of things to learn. Maybe somebody has a recipe to share?

As a frequent beneficiary of this chicken stock, I can vouch for its quality. It’s darned handy to have a couple batches in the freezer. This is a fun and tasty recipe to use for stew, pasta, and more!

Christmas in June: Save Money with Homemade Gifts

Each December, I put together gifts for friends, co-workers, neighbors and family. My list is long, and I don’t want to break the bank. Homemade gifts go the extra mile to express my affection to the people in my life, while also allowing me to save some money. If you’re thinking about making gifts from summer’s bounty, and are willing to put in some elbow grease in a hot kitchen, now is the time to begin.

Last year’s bread ‘n’ butter pickles were a big hit, and I’ll be putting up plenty of those as my cucumber vines start producing. Under the tree this year will be a 7-grain pancake mix (assembled from various Bob’s Red Mill products — a local company I love) with home-canned strawberry syrup. Oregon is in the peak of strawberry season, so last weekend I planned accordingly.

At the end of Saturday I had:

  • 2 batches strawberry freezer jam (6 containers for our own use — J.D. loves this)
  • 2 batches strawberry syrup recipe #1 (5 pints and 7 half-pints)
  • 1 batch strawberry syrup recipe #2 (10 half-pints)
  • 1 batch strawberry-banana topping (1 pint, 7 half-pints)

That’s a total of 27 jars of gift-syrup, plus 9 containers for our own use.


Here’s a cost breakdown:

  • $5 worth of sugar, about 10 pounds
  • $3 worth of lemons, about 6
  • $1 worth of ripe bananas
  • $8 for pectin
  • $5 for canning lids
  • $20 for strawberries: about 25 pints. I bought a $20 flat and picked the rest for free (from our garden and another field belonging to an acquaintance). It worked out to 80 cents/pint. At the farmer’s market today, the price was $2.50 per pint for local berries. Clearly, this project is more affordable if you have a garden or can find a u-pick place for berries. When I go pick blueberries and boysenberries later in the summer, the price at my favorite farm runs 40 cents a pound for u-pick. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is famous for its berries. What grows in your area?
  • $7.50 for canning jars/screwbands. This is difficult to calculate. New, the jars run about 70 cents apiece. But they can be reused for many years. Some of my gift-recipients return jars to me, and I receive many reusable jars of goodies from friends. Used canning jars can also be found at garage sales for cheap.
  • Unknown cost for running the natural gas stovetop for about 4 hours.

With all those costs factored in, the cost per syrup or jam container is about $1.45 — a small price to pay for summer sunshine in a jar. The syrup is a gorgeous ruby color that is pleasing to the eye and will make a nice pairing with the hearty 7-grain mix.

Most people relish gifts of homemade food. While a plate of cookies or seasonal baking is always welcome, there does seem to be a surplus around the holidays. By giving your homemade canned goods, there’s no rush to eat them before they spoil or go stale, so they can be enjoyed anytime. And at prices like these, you can show your appreciation and stick to your gift-giving budget.


Addendum: By popular request, here is the recipe Kris used last weekend. This comes from Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda J. Amendt (2001).

Strawberry Topping
makes 4-5 half-pint jars

  • 5 cups hulled and sliced fresh strawberries
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice

Using a vegetable masher, gently crush 2 cups of the strawberries. Set the remaining berries aside.

In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Over low heat, stirring constantly, heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Stir in the crushed strawberries. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for 5 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Stir in the remaining berries and the lemon juice. Simmer, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat,

Ladle the strawberry topping into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Using a plastic knife, remove any trapped air bubbles. Wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp, cloth. Cover with hot lids and apply screw rings. Process half-pint jars in a 200F water bath (just under boiling) for 10 minutes.

Tasty stuff!

Commandment #4: Be Frugal

Last night while cleaning the house, I found some old papers. Among the many memories, I found a document entitled “J.D.’s Ten Commandments”. I can’t tell exactly when I wrote this, but I’d guess it was back in 1992 or 1993, just after I’d graduated from college.

My ten commandments were:

  1. Be physically fit.
  2. Be attractive.
  3. Don’t waste free time.
  4. Be frugal.
  5. Maintain the automobile.
  6. Be curious.
  7. Be loving.
  8. Be productive.
  9. Have fun.
  10. Be rational.

The meat of this document are the supporting details beneath each commandment. They’re a fascinating glimpse at my mind from fifteen years ago. For example, under “be physically fit”, I wrote “eat food that will prolong life, not shorten it”. As part of my productivity goal, I aimed to “write for at least three hours a week”. (Ha! Now I write at least three hours a day.)

It’s fun to see which of these goals I’ve achieved and which I’ve missed. It’s also interesting to note which goals have made me happy and which have not. I met my writing goal, for example, and this has been a source of fulfillment. But I also “learn to program in C”. This wasn’t such a dream come true. I spent a year programming computers, and found that the work wasn’t meaningful or enjoyable.

I did a poor job at following some of my commandments. My fourth commandment was “be frugal”, under which I set the following subgoals:

  • Budget for a limit of $10 a week of personal entertainment.
  • For something more than $10, save.
  • Buy only Star Trek comics.
  • Don’t eat in restaurants.
  • Utilize a savings account.
  • Don’t use credit.
  • Pretend that life is a business venture.

I failed miserably at every one of these. In the decade after I made this list, I spent lavishly on personal entertainment. I never opened a savings account — if I wanted something, I usually just bought it on credit. I bought whatever comics I wanted, and ate in restaurants all the time. If I had followed my own admonitions, I might have been able to get a head start on retirement. Instead I found myself with more than $20,000 in credit card debt.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that eventually I figured this stuff out. Eventually I learned to be frugal. If only I had learned these things back in 1992!

I still make lists of financial goals (though I don’t call them “commandments”). Every few months, I draw up a list of my current income and fixed spending. I project big upcoming expenses (“plumbing repairs”, “vacation to Europe”), and then plot how much I need to save. This is as close as I come to creating a budget. The difference between 1992 and 2007 is that now I actually achieve most of the goals I set for myself.

If I can learn to handle money correctly, then anyone can.

Sometimes a Cheap Meal is Expensive

My sister-in-law, Tiffany, called yesterday. “Do you guys want to have lunch at the new Thai place?” she asked. We did. Kris and I are eager to find another cheap restauarant close by. We picked up Tiff and drove to the Thai place, but it wasn’t open. Instead, we walked over to Sully’s, a small diner nearby. The place was full.

“It’ll be ten or fifteen minutes,” the hostess told us. We didn’t want to wait.

“Let’s go to Hale’s,” suggested Kris. “They have good food.”

We climbed back in the car and drove ten minutes down the highway through heavy traffic. “We could eat at The Bomber,” I said, pointing out a local landmark. After World War II, Art Lacey bought a B-17, flew it to Portland, stood it on pillars, and built a gas station underneath it. He opened a restaurant next door.

“You don’t even like The Bomber,” Kris pointed out. “Every time we eat there you complain about how bad the food is. Let’s go to Hale’s.” But when we got to Hale’s we were dismayed to discover a line out the door.

“Wow,” said Tiffany. “The food here must be good.”

“Not good enough to wait in line for,” said Kris. After some discussion, we drove to The Bomber.

The Bomber is an Oregon landmark. Photo by vj_pdx.


The Bomber’s menu is a mess, with a layout so busy it’s impossible to tell what’s what. It’s also full of cutesy names for common food. (The on-line menu is much clearer than the printed version.) Kris ordered a “Lacey Lady”, which most places would just call a turkey club. I ordered The Dunkirk — a French dip.

As we were driving home Tiff asked, “So how was the Dunkirk?”

“It was awful,” I said. “The beef was like rubber. It was cold. And the mashed potatoes were inedible. The gravy was cold and chemically. The potatoes themselves were like the paste we used to use in grade school.”

Then, after a pause, I admitted, “I don’t ever have to eat at The Bomber again.”

“I told you so,” Kris said, laughing. “And think about it. We just paid $20 for the two of us. We could have had a healthy and tasty meal at home for much less. Plus, which would you rather have: five meals at The Bomber, or one nice dinner out?”

No contest. I’d rather have one nice dinner out. I’d be willing to give up many similar restaurant meals for a single excellent dinner. Better still, I would rather have the lunch special at the local Chinese place. We could have eaten there for $5 each (including tip) and had enough left over for another meal!

In all, we had a frustrating experience. We’d intended to have cheap meal at the new Thai place at 11:30. Instead we drove up-and-down the highway, didn’t eat until 12:45, and paid too much for lousy food.

A bargain is only a bargain if you get good value from it.

Cheap Hobbies: Getting Started with Naked-Eye Astronomy

We lived in the country when I was a boy, far from the city lights. My father would take me outside at night and point to the stars. “That’s Orion,” he’d say, and he would help me trace The Hunter’s outline. “That’s the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper isn’t really a constellation, but it’s like one. And do you see that big red star over there? The one that doesn’t twinkle? That’s the planet Mars.”

I was in awe. A life-long love of space grew from this stargazing. Other astronomy highlights from my youth include:

  • Sleeping outside to watch meteor showers.
  • Viewing the surface of the moon through a telescope.
  • Visits to the Kendall Planetarium and its skyshows.
  • Watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
  • Founding a short-lived college astronomy club with two friends — we took people out to nearby farms to look at the stars.

Astronomy is a perfect low-cost hobby to share with children. If you want to introduce a kid to naked-eye astronomy, or if you’re curious yourself, find a copy of H.A. Rey‘s The Stars: A New Way to See Them. Rey — best-known for creating Curious George — published this book in 1952, but it’s just as useful today. How good is it? It was one of the texts for my college-level astronomy class. All 45 reviews at Amazon give the book five stars.

Rey writes:

This book is meant for people who want to know just enough about the stars to be able to go out at night and find the major constellations, for the mere pleasure of it.

The book contains:

  • A brief introduction to naked-eye astronomy
  • Seventeen constellation charts that make it simple to pick out their shapes in the stars.
  • A timetable and series of star charts to help you find the constellations in any season.
  • A fifty-page survey of more esoteric astronomy topics, such as declination and right ascension, azimuth and the ecliptic, the procession of the equinoxes, and more. This section is at the back of the book, and perfect for adults who want to learn more, or for curious older children.

Normally I’d recommend borrowing this book from your local library, but The Stars: A New Way to See Them is so good and so useful that it’s worth spending ten bucks to own it. That one expenditure is all you need to enjoy naked-eye astronomy as a hobby.

Fun and easy astronomy projects include:

  • Create a list of the brightest stars and check them off as you see them.
  • Learn where the planets are in the sky and attempt to identify them.
  • Choose one constellation a week. Learn its shape and its relative position in the sky. Research lore about it and the stars that create its shape.
  • Make an astronomy scavenger hunt for your kids or for your spouse.
  • Spend a month observing the changing phases of the moon. It can be startling for kids to realize that the moon isn’t always out at night. The reasons for this can be difficult to understand, even for adults.
  • Read about famous astronomers and what they contributed to the science.
  • If you own a pair of binoculars, explore objects like the Pleiades and the Andromeda Galaxy.

A knowledge of the night sky makes camping more enjoyable. It even makes sitting in the back yard on a summer evening more enjoyable!


GRS-reader Fraser, host of the astronomy weblog Universe Today, helped produce a free e-book for astronomy enthusiasts. He writes:

Astronomy is an excellent and cheap hobby. I haven’t spent a penny on it in years. Earlier this year, I released a free 400+ page book containing things to see every night of the year. We’re working on the 2007 version now, and it’ll be free too. There’s great advice in the book about how to get started, as well as plenty of links in the back.

Universe Today is a fine source for astronomy information. Other sites that I’ve found useful or fun include:

The news of Pluto’s demotion from Planet to Dwarf Planet sent shock-waves among the children I know. “If they can change this, they can change other things,” said precocious nine-year-old Lydia. “So why should I bother to learn anything?”

(“That’s science,” said my wife, a scientist. “It’s constantly changing as we learn more.”)

Six-year-old Antonio is concerned, too. He enters first grade this week, and he’s been learning about the solar system at home. He has a book on every planet, including Pluto. But now that it’s not a planet any more, what is he to do?

It’s great to see kids concerned about the subject. I love that their parents have taken the time to share the planets with them. Astronomy is a fun and inexpensive way to explore the universe around us.

The frugal photographer

Expensive hobbies and a frugal lifestyle can be tough to balance. Few hobbies are more expensive than photography. So what’s a frugal photographer to do? The three best cheap things you can do to improve your photography skill are:

  1. Learn your camera. Read your camera manual, and carry it with you. This is the cheapest improvement you can make. Learn what your camera can and cannot do. Make a lot of photographs.
  2. Take a class from your local art school or community college. For a couple hundred bucks, you’ll have access to a professional photographer, to other enthusiastic amateurs, and possibly to expensive darkroom equipment.
  3. Use a tripod. This is a sure-fire way to sharper pictures. You don’t need to spend a fortune; anything is better than hand-held. I’ve been using a cheap $50 tripod for five years and love it for everything except taking photos from the middle of a stream.

If you did just these three things, your photos would improve such that you wouldn’t need to buy any more gear. But if you’re like me, you’re going to want to invest in more equipment anyhow. If that’s the case, then consider some further advice:

Continue reading