Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It's Not Even Winter Yet...

Yesterday morning the temperature outside was minus 11.1 degrees Fahrenheit. It can't already be time to hunker down and hibernate! To make matters even more dismal, for dinner I finished off the last of the carrots, beets and squash from this year's garden. All I'm left with now are a few jars of pesto, some frozen swiss chard and one small container of butternut squash soup.

It would be nice to be approaching the winter solstice with a pantry, freezer and root cellar brimming with homegrown food. Next winter, for sure.

On the bright side, without the bitter cold I would not have been treated to this exquisite scene on my front window this morning:

You can't see it in these pictures, but at the very top of the window, all of the branching structures ended in delicate fernlike tips. These bitter cold ice crystals took on the organic form of gracefully branching plant life--winter art that reminds me of the promise of springtime (however far away that may be).

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Green Coffee Beans

I love when I find a way to achieve several objectives with one action. This week I figured out just such an action I could be taking.

Coffee is one purchase that I will probably continue to make even when I've gone 99% local. Yet, I'm aware of the issues surrounding conventionally-grown coffee: pesticide residue on the coffee beans, environmental damage from clearcutting and monoculture production, loss of habitat for songbirds and other wildlife, and exploitation of plantation workers.

Fair-trade, organic and shade grown coffees have become increasingly available in recent years, yet for me they've remained out of my price range. This is a common problem, I believe, for many of us wishing to do the right thing--affordability. It leaves us with an awful dilemma: continue doing what we ourselves find morally objectionable, give up something we enjoy, or find some way to fit the morally responsible choice into our lives by making other sacrifices.

Fortunately in the case of coffee beans I've found a win-win solution. I discovered that whole green (unroasted) coffee beans are extremely economical, even the certified fair trade organic, shade grown varieties. The only trade-off is that I have to roast the beans myself, which actually sounds fun to me. Toss them in a cast iron skillet, watch them roast before my very eyes, and breathe in the heady aroma. I can control exactly how dark I want the roast to be for each batch I make, and by roasting small batches I'm guaranteed the freshest coffee possible. In their green state, coffee beans keep indefinitely (but lose quality very quickly once roasted). That means I can buy in bulk--enjoying further savings--and have a large stockpile on hand.

If I buy 20 pounds at a time--which is about a 20-month supply for me--the price is comparable to the cheapest conventionally grown, pesticide-laden stuff on the shelves of every supermarket. I've found some fair trade organic, shade grown varieties that work out to $3.70 per pound, and most are around $4.10 per pound. Obviously, if you buy in smaller allotments you'll pay a bit more, but it's still a great deal considering what you're getting.

And have you noticed lately that all of the supermarket coffees are now being packaged in plastic containers instead of steel cans? I find that a very annoying development. But if I buy in bulk I will no longer be supporting such wasteful packaging practices.

See, one little action and I'm changing the world. (Well, just a little bit.)

Here are a few websites that sell green coffee beans. They're just to get you started--you'll want to do your own search too. Be aware, these are not all fair trade, organic and shade grown. Read carefully--there are a lot of conventional beans in the mix and then some that are fair-trade, but not shade grown, etc.




Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Recycle Your Water Filters

Starting in January, you'll be able to recycle your Brita water filters in the US, by dropping them off at participating Whole Foods Market stores or by mailing them to Preserve, the company that will be handling the recycling process. Brita will post the full details of the program on their website in January.

For now, this program only applies to Brita's pitcher filters, not to their faucet-mounted filters, which are made from a different type of plastic. But this is certainly a step in the right direction considering the hundreds of thousands of these filters produced each year by the company. Keeping any of them out of the landfill is progress.

We can thank the Organic Consumers Association and takebackthefilter.org for helping to convince Brita of the need for such a program in the US.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Preserving Food Traditions

I've heard it said that unlike most cultures, America really doesn't have a cuisine of its own. Instead we have a hodge-podge of ethnic cuisines, but nothing really that defines the country as a whole.

However, we do have food traditions worth preserving and traditions in danger of being lost. Fortunately there have been several projects lately aimed at preserving some of these old traditions.

"Feeding America" was a project of Michigan State University to digitize seventy-six early-American cookbooks. While these books reveal their heavy English and sometimes French influences, they also include foodstuffs indigenous to the Americas (cranberries, corn, turkey, squash) and there's even one book (Zuni Breadstuff) specifically about Native American cookery. The cookbooks span from the late 1700's up to the early 1920's (those books from 1924 and later are still under copyright protection, but these older ones are now in the public domain).

Utah State University has a much smaller collection of digitized cookbooks (only seven) from the same period, but they're still worth checking out.

And this website, Dover Centre Books, has a large collection of public domain cookbooks from around the world. (Ever wonder what Andalusian cooking was like in the 13th century--well now you can find out!)

I don't know about you, but I find this kind of historical stuff really neat. The 21st century American diet really looks like crap when you compare it to the richness of these earlier cuisines. There's a lot we can learn from those who went before us.

Still, I don't think anyone's going to be serving this for dessert anytime soon:

To make Puddings of a Heifers Udder.
Take an heifers udder, and boil it; being cold, mince it small, and put to it a pound of almond paste, some grated manchet, three or four eggs, a quart of cream, one pound of beef-suet minced small, sweet herbs chopped small also, currans, cinamon, salt, one pound of sugar, nutmeg, saffron, yolks of hard eggs in quarters, preserved pears in form of square dice; bits of marrow; mingle all together, and put it in a clean napkin dipped in warm liquor, bind it up round like a ball, and boil it.
Being boil’d dish it in a clean scoured dish, scrape sugar, and run it over with beaten butter, stick it with slic’t almonds, or slic’t dates, canded lemon peel, orange, or citrons, juyce of orange over all.
Thus also lamb-stones, sweet-breads, turkey, capon, or any poultrey.

Have fun browsing, and if you know of other digitized historical cookbooks out there, let me know.