Friday, September 17, 2010

Thermos Cooking

Since I'm planning to go off-grid in the next few years, learning what I can about low-energy cooking seems important. I'm planning to build an experimental solar cooker, a solar dehydrator, and a rocket stove, but haven't gotten around to any of these projects yet. But there's one technique I can easily play with right now--since I don't need to build anything first--and that's thermos cooking.

Thermos cooking uses retained heat to cook foods. Instead of needing to fuel a stove for two hours to cook a pot of beans, you fuel the stove only long enough to achieve a boil and then cook the beans for five minutes. After that, the beans and water are sealed into an insulated thermos and allowed to finish cooking using just the retained heat. This obviously takes much longer, but with a little planning it's an excellent method. It conserves fuel, requires little tending once the food is in the thermos, and retains more nutrients than higher-temperature cooking.

In the past week I've done my first experiments using this method. First, I made a batch of wheat berries. One of my favorite bread recipes uses a cup and a half of cooked whole wheat berries--the yield I get when I start with a half a cup of dried wheat berries--and since I was planning to make bread anyway this seemed like a good place to start. I put a half a cup of dried wheat berries into my thermos (actually what I have is an insulated carafe, not a thermos) and added boiling water to cover them and completely fill the thermos. I left the thermos alone overnight and in the morning I had perfectly cooked wheat berries ready to go into my next loaf of bread.

My other experiment was with pinto beans. I wanted to try a relatively large bean, since I've read online that beans can be difficult to fully cook using this method. I figured if I could get it to work with the largest beans, it would work with almost anything. Wednesday night I soaked the beans as I normally would, then in the morning I put them in a pot of water on the stove, brought the water to a boil, and allowed the beans to simmer for five minutes. Then using a funnel, I poured the beans and boiling water into my thermos, filling all the way to the top. I sealed the thermos and left it to cook. From what I've read online, some people have found their thermoses (is that the plural of thermos?) lose too much heat during the long cooking time that beans require, so at some point they need to drain the cooled water and add a fresh batch of boiling water. I checked my thermos before I went to bed last night and the water was still piping hot. The beans weren't done yet, so I let it continue with the original water throughout the night. This morning when I got up, the water was still hot, and the beans were perfectly done.

I'm really excited about this method. It'll be great for all of my grains--wheat berries, oats, rice, etc.--and beans, and I've read that people have used thermos cooking for even more adventurous things, like stews. I definitely have some more experimenting to do! If this is something you want to try, and you don't already have a thermos handy, I've read that Stanley Aladdin and Nissan thermoses are best at retaining heat. You'll also want one with a wide-enough mouth for scooping out whatever you cook--gloppy or sticky things like oats or rice might require getting a utensil of some sort in there--and if you think you'll do a lot of thermos cooking, then find a thermos for which you can get replacement gaskets.

I lucked out because I already had my carafe on hand. It turned out to be superbly well-insulated. The only bad thing is it's a no-name brand, so there'll be no replacement parts if the gasket ever wears out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Food Self-Sufficiency A Pipe Dream?

Lately I've been coming across quite a few people online who rail against the idea that anyone could achieve food self-sufficiency. One guy on a forum asked the other members if any of them were growing and/or raising all their own food. He was arguing that food self-sufficiency is unrealistic. The replies went on for pages and pages but not a single person could say yes to his question. A lot of people wanted to defend the idea, but nobody could provide the proof. On other sites, I see people arguing that it's a ridiculous goal to aim for--we're social animals and we should all work cooperatively to ensure a solid food supply. Growing your own food supply is portrayed as inherently antisocial.

What do I think about all of this? I'm one of those who defends the idea of food self-sufficiency, yet haven't achieved it for myself yet. I don't see anything inherently antisocial about growing food or learning everything you possibly can about growing crops and/or raising animals. It's just like learning to be a good cook--if you love cooking you want to develop a wide repertoire of skills. You don't neglect a certain area of cooking--say pastry-making--just because there are others who could do that more efficiently for you. You dive into everything. Developing multiple competencies is something we thrive on. It's fulfilling, and from a survival perspective it is enormously advantageous. I think it's important for each of us to constantly work to expand our personal competencies. Does that mean we then only use those competencies for self-serving purposes? Of course not. We can use those skills in community just as well as in our private spaces. I for one would love to participate in a community of well-rounded people who have multiple competencies, rather than in a community of specialists. In strong communities, redundancy of skills is important. It's not that I don't think a certain degree of specialization is helpful--just that each specialist should also have basic broad competencies as well.

So I've been puzzling out this self-sufficiency thing. Is it really that difficult to grow all of your food supply? I just don't think so. I've been doing a lot of calculations this weekend and what I've deduced is that I should easily be able to grow 80% of my food supply in just 800 square feet of space. That's 80% of all my nutritional needs: calories, protein, starches, vitamins, minerals, and fats. The weak area would be providing enough fat in my diet. The climate isn't right to grow foods like avocados or olives but I would be getting some fat from nuts and seeds. Adding a few hens would be helpful (each egg has 6 grams of fat) but that would mean expanding the garden to grow their feed. One or two dwarf or pygmy dairy goats would more than cover my need for fats, but again, the land area required would increase significantly. Since I'm living on about a sixth of an acre currently, goats aren't a possibility. However, my ultimate point here is that growing a complete diet isn't at all unrealistic, nor would it be an overwhelming amount of work.

I already have experience with growing a 500 square foot garden and that was extremely easy to manage. This year's garden should be over 1000 square feet. The challenge isn't really the work involved, it's the knowledge that's required. Understanding my body's nutritional needs and then translating that into the right foods to grow and the correct amount of space to allot to each food--that's the real challenge.

The other big challenge is that given the standard American diet most of us are accustomed to, growing your own food almost by default means massively changing your diet. And even though that change is healthy and in your best interests, it's still very hard. I've been in the process of changing my diet for the past five years--eliminating processed foods, cooking from scratch, and using as much garden produce as possible--and still I know that I have to change my eating habits even more dramatically if I want to eat only what I grow. I've mentioned before how growing my own food is teaching me about what is sensible to eat and to grow. What's sensible to grow ends up being what's very, very healthy to eat, but it also ends up being a diet very foreign to us in the modern western world.

In February, the USDA came out with the most recent statistics (from 2008) on our food consumption patterns. It's quite scary. If we were to try to model our gardens on the diet these statistics show we're eating we would need quite a large amount of land and resources. The average American is eating 922.6 pounds of food per year, or 2648.6 calories per day. It breaks down like this:

Obviously each person's needs are unique. A teenage boy or a manual laborer will need to eat much more than a sedentary senior citizen or someone with an office job. A good formula for calculating your individual caloric needs can be found here. My needs fall somewhere around 1800 calories per day (less in winter when I hibernate), which amounts to roughly 68% of the average cited above (2648.6 calories/day). If I was a representative American (thankfully I'm not!) that would mean I'm eating 93 pounds of grains per year, 66 pounds of sweeteners, 85 pounds of fruit, 114 pounds of vegetables, 39 pounds of added fat, 127 pounds of dairy products, and 103 pounds of meats, eggs, and nuts. It adds up to 627 pounds of food per year.

Using intensive gardening methods I know that across all crops I'm roughly able to yield 100 pounds of food per 100 square foot bed. Obviously some yields are much higher and some much lower, but that's a good figure to play with. In order to grow 627 pounds of food I need approximately 6.27 100 square foot beds, which is an incredibly manageable thing to do. But it's not enough to just grow 627 pounds of food--it has to be the right combination of crops to ensure I'm getting adequate calories and nutrition.

I'm still trying to figure all of this out. John Jeavon's book How to Grow More Vegetables has been very helpful. His charts listing expected yields allow me to calculate my space requirements. Learning the nutrition side of things has been more daunting, especially when there's so much conflicting information. Just how much fat does a person need? How much protein for optimal health? This is where I need to focus my energy--educating myself on nutrition. I'm one of those Weston Price groupies, so my ideas are far from the norm. Finding good information is challenging.

Nevertheless, I think I'm on the right track with what I'm planning to grow this year. I've got some good protein crops--seeds, oats, amaranth, chickpeas, and dent corn (never did get around to ordering Spanish peanuts this year--darn!) and good calorie crops (same as above plus potatoes and sweet potatoes), plenty of starches and a huge range of fruits, veggies and herbs to round out my nutritional requirements. I still want to get this down to more of a science, however.

The diet I end up with is not going to look anything like the standard American diet. That's one thing I'm quite certain of. I suspect it will end up having an indigenous American flavor to it when all is said and done--depending more heavily on corn, beans, squashes, amaranth, and potatoes for a large percentage of my calories--and less on wheat and sugars.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Toads: Garden Helpers

Yesterday I was out enjoying our 88-degree weather, double-digging one of this year's new garden beds. There were a number of surprises as I dug, including part of an old foundation, chunks of coal, an old rusty pipe, and broken glass. At one point I unearthed a huge lawn grub, all pasty white, curled in a ball, and squirming. A few minutes later I dug up this gigantic pasty white thing, round and feebly squirming, about two-thirds the size of my palm. I thought it was some over-sized mutant form of lawn grub. It really freaked me out! I looked closer and realized I had dug up a hibernating toad. I never knew they lost all their pigment and warts when they hibernated. This little lady was smooth, off-white, and glistening. I quickly re-buried her in the loosened earth. Hopefully the rude awakening I gave her won't lead to any harm.

Toads are great for the garden. They'll eat many pests. Last year we were overrun with them, which was a really good thing since we were also overrun with grasshoppers. The toads didn't seem to make much of a dent with the grasshoppers, but I hate to think what it would have been like without their help. They definitely kept the squash bug population under control however.

One day last summer I overhead the neighbors sending their grandkids out to hunt and kill toads. They garden too, so I guess they just didn't realize how beneficial toads are for the garden. Or maybe they just are creeped out by them. I can't imagine ever intentionally harming a toad.

The other day I read an article which predicted a particularly bad year for grasshoppers again. It didn't specifically mention Colorado, but did mention enough of the neighboring states to have me concerned. I'll need all the toads I can get this year (and a bunch of floating row covers wouldn't hurt either).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hands in the Dirt

Ah, Spring is really here. After a long winter of dreaming about gardening, the busy season is finally here. No more time for dreaming, there's way too much to do.

Yesterday I finished sifting the compost. I got about two-thirds of a cubic yard of finished stuff which I need to spread on all the beds that will be getting the earliest plantings. Then there's a huge pile of unfinished compost which I hope will cook down to another two-thirds of a cubic yard and I'll be able to use that for the later plantings.

In the next couple of days I need to prepare these first beds. I've got to get my nude oats sown (well, other things too, but I had to say nude oats--it sounds so sexy). We'll be planting kale and some potatoes and other things, plus starting the peppers indoors. And since I'm expanding the garden (again) this year I have to de-sod and double-dig the new beds.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Human Health Our God-Given Right?

I've been a subscriber of Dr. Mercola's alternative health newsletter for several years. While I don't always agree with everything there, it's very informative and I've learned a lot. Plus the community is great too.

One thing that has irked me a little is Dr. Mercola's push to sell krill oil as a source of omega-3's. Today there was an article, Lawsuit Raises Fish Oil Supplement Concerns, railing yet again against fish oil supplements and praising the virtues of krill oil. I personally don't think we should be going to the ends of the earth (Antarctica) to harvest a sea critter best left for the whales.

Here's the comment I left. I wonder what kind of response it'll bring?

I'm assuming my opinion won't be a popular one, but I will share it anyway. To me, there's a kind of hubris involved in going to the ends of the earth to find critters (say krill, for instance) to harvest for the sake of human health. We've caused so much contamination to the world's fisheries we now have to go to extremes to harvest something safe for human consumption. The hubris is in thinking that we have a right to pursue human health at all costs, when no other animal on this planet has that luxury. I believe we should be eating from our local foodsheds and rehabilitating our local foodsheds so they can provide us (and all of the local critters) with the optimal health that's possible in that location. This won't be perfect health. I don't believe perfect health is an option for any living thing on this planet any longer due to the damage we've already inflicted. For us to push into ecosystems where we have no business being will just cause more degradation.

Putting ourselves and our health above other living things is the same kind of mentality that created this mess in the first place. I'm willing to sacrifice a degree of my own health to live more sustainably. That means I forgo health-giving substances shipped in from somewhere else for what I can find locally. In these times we have to strike a balance, being healthy-enough while ensuring the health of all others.

Thanks in advance for allowing me my contrary opinion!:)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Forget Moldy Spaghetti Sauce, Grow Your Own Tomatoes This Year

An article last month in the New York Times revealed a case of bribery and corruption that allowed tainted tomato products to be sold for years.  SK Foods, one of the largest tomato processors, sold millions of pounds of moldy or otherwise defective tomato products to more than 55 companies, including Kraft.  Some companies sent the defective tomatoes back, but many more did not and the tomato products ended up on store shelves and in the hands of consumers.
...prosecutors say that for years, SK Foods shipped its customers millions of pounds of bulk tomato paste and puree that fell short of basic quality standards — with falsified documentation to mask the problems. Often that meant mold counts so high the sale should have been prohibited under federal law; at other times it involved breaching specifications in the sales contracts, such as acidity levels or the age of the product.

For the past several years, tomato products were pretty much the only processed foods I was still buying.  Then last year I finally got around to growing my own tomatoes--thirty some odd plants that provided all the tomatoes we needed for a full year.  We made all of our ketchup, sauces, paste, juice, etc plus enjoyed fresh tomatoes at the peak of ripeness and made a batch of sun-dried tomatoes as well.  There's no looking back now.  I can't imagine ever buying a jar of spaghetti sauce at the store again.  Or ketchup--I was never all that partial to ketchup until I made my own.  What a world of difference!  Even though I made more ketchup than we normally would consume in a year, I'm in danger of running out just because it's so amazingly flavorful.

If you're just getting started with gardening, tomatoes are a great place to start.  There's just so much you can do with them and even if you only get a few, they'll be so much better than anything you could buy--you'll be in heaven.  It's about that time to get your seedlings started in most parts of the US--the rule of thumb is 6 weeks before the last frost.  I'll be starting mine on April 1st.  Get yours started and you won't have to worry when you hear reports like the one I linked to up above.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How Many Twinkies Are Too Many?

Michelle Obama spoke about obesity Wednesday at a forum sponsored by Newsweek.  (The full transcript can be found here.)  If you read the whole thing it sounds pretty sensible, but the part about Twinkies seemed a little silly.  It started when the interviewer asked her if she thought Twinkies and Fruit Loops should come with warning labels. 
You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know. And what -- what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. And our kids would be pretty upset. And I am not supporting that.


I'm all in favor of good snacks. We grew up with snacks and chips. We did. But we have to exercise more, parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie; again, how does it fit into the overall diet. So we don't need a warning, we need information. And we need information that's easy to understand. That's something that I said yesterday in the speech. You read labels now and it's like the small print and it's all "oleosutomay" -- or I don't -- the chemicals, you can't even pronounce them, and the portion sizes compared to one, and you've got a small one and a big one. And then, before you know it, you don't know what to buy and how much to give to your kids and in what amounts. That's the kind of information that families need.

I'd like to know how she proposes we make the ingredient list on a Twinkie wrapper easier to understand?  In order to do that you'd have to take out all of the unpronounceable chemicals and then it wouldn't be a Twinkie anymore, would it?  If she wants labels to be understandable, what she really wants is for foods to be all-natural.  A Twinkie will never be that.  So she's really sending a mixed message.

My opinion:  from a health perspective a Twinkie is probably more like a cigarette than Michelle Obama is willing to admit.  I'd recommend she check out Steve Ettlinger's book, Twinkie Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats.  How do Twinkies fit into the overall diet?  They just don't, not at all.  The proper portion size?  Zero servings.

She makes a good point that we need to understand portion sizes better, but I wish she would have argued that sometimes the portion size should be zero.

We've really lost our ability to understand sensible portions and I think that came about because we quit growing our own food and started eating processed junk.  With processed junk you really don't know what you're eating, so how can you ever gauge what is a sensible amount?  When you grow your own food you understand what's sensible to grow, to store, and to eat and you understand how to create balance among a wide variety of foods.  It's all right under your nose.  You see it all, you know how much work is required and how many resources are involved in creating the food.  You will naturally create a diet that is sensible and has sensible portions.  And you won't have to mine anything to create it.

I think it will be a long, hard journey to get people to return to that kind of knowledge.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking Stock

I'm taking a little time today to look over where I stand as far as food security goes. If I got snowed in today by the blizzard to end all blizzards and couldn't get to the store for weeks, how would I fare? And beyond that, if something equally catastrophic but more slowly unfolding were to happen, such as total economic collapse, how well would I be positioned to ride something like that out?

The short answer is that for a brief emergency I'd be in good shape. For anything lasting longer than a few weeks or months I'd come up short, but probably be in much better shape than most people.

From last year's garden I've still got pesto, chard, chard stalks, zucchini, green beans, tomato paste, butternut squash soup, butternut squash puree, pickles, zucchini pickles, beet preserves, hot sauce, tomato sauce, tomato juice, ketchup, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, sauerkraut, spinach pasta, dried oregano, and fresh rosemary. I've also got tons of dried beans and legumes. I haven't started buying those in bulk yet, but I've got two pounds of this, two pounds of that. Altogether probably about 12-15 pounds of beany things, and then 7 or 8 pounds of rice. I buy refined flour by the twenty-five pound sack and I've got perhaps 15 pounds of the current sack left. And then various smaller bags of other flours: whole wheat, graham, rye, teff, and cornmeal (I'm all out of semolina). I've got plenty of salt: sea salt, iodized salt, pickling salt, and coarse kosher salt. And a whole arsenal of dried herbs and spices. And plenty of seeds for sprouts. I've got a large can of olive oil and several tubs of lard, both of which keep fairly well (and lots of butter which is obviously more perishable). With all of that I could eat well for quite some time. I could make soups, pastas, beans, rice, all sorts of bread products, stir-fries and more. Where I'm weak is with meat and dairy and also, this time of year, fresh fruits and veggies. We'd run out fast. Especially of eggs, milk, and butter.

I also took stock of where I stand with seeds and plants for this year's garden--and that's actually looking really good. I've got seeds here for nearly fifty different types of fruits, veggies, beans, grains, seeds, and herbs (combined). Some of those are seeds leftover from previous years, so they're of questionable viability (although I typically have great luck with old seeds). All in all though it represents a huge variety of foods and a nice range of nutritional qualities. I still need to buy my seed potatoes for this year and I have a list of other seeds I still need or want. I ran out of seeds for some of my most favorite veggies, so I'll at least be getting those: beets, chard, spinach, peas, green beans, and butternut squash. But some items on the wish list will probably end up waiting for another year.

If a disaster were to strike today and be ongoing I think I could get through the rest of the winter with what I've got. Springtime would be rough, before the garden was in full swing, but from summertime on I'd be okay.

Doing this thought exercise reminds me just how desperately I'd love to start raising my own hens and meat rabbits. Maybe I need to focus on those priorities a little better. And also I realized that I'm extremely vulnerable if there were a sustained power outage, since electricity powers everything in my house: heat, lights, stove, etc. For cooking I'd just need to get a camping stove and lots of fuel. For heat I'd be up a creek. Fortunately I can always go to a friend's house where there's a wood stove for cooking and heating.

This year I want to make a concerted effort to start a food storage plan. Ideally I'd like to accumulate a two year supply. It just seems smart to be prepared for anything. I read an author the other day who said that the western home was like a person on life support, utterly dependent on things outside itself for survival. We have everything we need piped in from somewhere else (electricity, natural gas, water, food, etc.) and all of our wastes carried off for us (trash, recyclables, black water, gray water). That leaves us incredibly vulnerable. I think it's in every family's best interest to take back responsibility for all of these critical needs, or as many of them as possible.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dreaming of Lettuce

For the past two nights I've been dreaming about lettuce--if that isn't weird, I don't know what is! In the first dream I was in a large hall for some sort of celebration feast. There were these large tables set up with seed flats, row upon row of them, of young lettuce plants. The lettuces were all about 6 or 8 inches tall and there was every imaginable variety represented. It was beautiful, all the different leaf shapes and the shades of green and pink and red and purple. For your salad you just went up and picked whatever assortment of lettuce you preferred. In the second dream, last night, there was just one lettuce plant, about a foot tall, and I was plucking off leaves and eating them one by one. It was the most delicious lettuce I had ever tasted, very sweet and buttery.

I've been trying hard this winter to mostly eat from my preserved garden produce, without resorting to buying from the grocery store. This was the only option that was available to our ancestors and I've heard tales of how starved they were this time of the year, especially for greens. My body seems to be crying out too. It's not that I haven't eaten any greens, but apparently I haven't been eating enough. We still have some frozen chard that I've been using lately in stir-fries, and I've been growing sprouts too. But oh what I wouldn't give for a tender young lettuce plant right now, or even the first lamb's quarters of the season. I guess it's still a little early.

Maybe these dreams are telling me I should go ahead with my plans to plant some things (especially lettuce) ultra early. Soil temperatures as of a few days ago were hitting 35 degrees F for the first time this season. A small cold snap the past two days has brought nighttime lows down into the single digits, so the soil temperature has dropped again, but I imagine in the next week or so it'll reliably be hitting that 35 degree mark. That would allow lettuce to germinate. I'd have to put a little hoop tunnel up to protect the seedlings. I have the plastic--I just need to get rebar stakes and pvc tubing. Meanwhile, I might as well start some lettuce in the house.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Using Soil Temperature to Gauge Planting Times

Okay, I know it's only January and I'm already obsessing about gardening. But seriously, it's only a few more weeks before I can get started again, at least with seedlings in the house. And if I'm really on the ball I'll be able to get some plants in the ground soon too.

John Jeavons includes a chart in How to Grow More Vegetables that shows the optimal soil temperatures for germination of various vegetables. The earliest, most cold-hardy plants will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 35 degrees F. They certainly prefer somewhat warmer temperatures, but if your goal is to get things started as soon as possible it's good to know which plants don't mind the cold. You're taking a chance, obviously, by planting ultra early, but if it doesn't work out you simply plant more seed a bit later and if it does work out--terrific!

Here are some minimums for you (remember this is soil temperature, not air temperature):

35 degrees F: lettuce, onion, parsnip, and spinach seeds

40 degrees F: beet, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chard, parsley, pea, radish, and turnip seeds

50 degrees F: asparagus, corn, and tomato seeds

60 degrees F: bean, cucumber, eggplant, okra, pepper, squash, and melon seeds

Where I live (in Colorado) soil temperatures are hovering somewhere around 32 degrees F. right now. I don't yet own a soil thermometer but luckily the local water conservancy district posts soil temperatures daily. The closest testing site to me is about 4 or 5 miles away, so it's only a rough estimate but good enough until I get my own thermometer. If you check with your area cooperative extension they may have this sort of data for your area or may be able to point you to an organization which does. Our water conservancy district compiles a lot of really useful data--soil and air temperatures, wind, humidity, solar radiation, precipitation, and more (if only I knew how to interpret all of that!).

Last year our soil temperatures started consistently hitting 35 degrees in mid-February, and 40 degrees in mid-March. I've never tried planting that early but I might experiment this year just to see what happens. I haven't decided if I will take the lazy approach, just planting some seeds and forgetting about them (except to water) or if I'll be more involved and offer them some protection, keeping an eye out for hard freezes, covering and uncovering and otherwise coddling them.

I've never been good about getting anything planted early, but it would be so nice to have those early greens and peas and radishes this year.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reducing Our Recyclables

We're told to reduce, reuse and recycle, but it seems to me that when recycling becomes too easy people forget the first two principles almost entirely. Recycling becomes automatic, especially in places where curbside recycling is the norm and little thought is required other than remembering to drag the bin to the curb every week. When it's that easy people get complacent. They're doing the right thing, and the right thing is easy, so why bother to think about it?

The problem is that recycling isn't enough. Have you ever driven through neighborhoods on recycling day and seen the mountains of stuff set out? It's appalling. When recycling is that easy there's absolutely no impetus for reducing our use of resources. If those resources come in recyclable packaging, and dealing with that packaging is as simple as kicking it to the curb, why even give it any thought? It all gets recycled. It's not as if we're creating waste now is it?

But we are creating waste, mountains of it, but because it's hidden from view (in the factories and slag heaps and poisoned waters) it's not real to us or relevant. Recycling, of course, is important, but it should be an action of last resort. We should be working towards not only zero waste in our homes, but also zero recyclables. Reducing and reusing are the strategies that matter most and have the greatest environmental impact.

One of my goals this year is to reduce my recyclables to as close to zero as possible. That means not buying anything in cans or plastic, and saving glass for reuse (which I already do). Paper is actually the bigger problem for me, which seems a bit ridiculous since it biodegrades. I could simply shred it and add it to the compost pile. My concern there is the bleach, ink, and possible heavy metal contaminants. Instead, I 'm working to reduce my use of paper. I've gone paperless for all of my bills, I get very, very little junk mail, and no newspapers or magazines, but I'm a hopeless note-taker, scribbler, doodler, and disorganized jotter-downer. I have ideas, instructions, mathematical equations, website links and a million other bits of information scattered about on fifty million pieces of paper around the house. Breaking that habit is going to be a tough one.

In most families though a great place to start reducing the amount of recyclables would be with beverage containers. That seems to be the bulk of what gets placed out on the curbs. Instead of buying cans of soda, buy two liter bottles, or better yet kick the habit entirely. Making your own beverages at home makes the most sense both financially and environmentally, since you eliminate the need for packaging and you're not paying to have water shipped all over the country. What can you make at home, using your own filtered tap water? Coffee, teas (regular and herbal), ginger ale, root beer, beers, wines and other alcoholic beverages, yogurt and kefir-based drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices. In other words, what beverage can't you make at home?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

School Lunches Getting Healthier Here

At the end of the holiday break I got an email from my son's school saying that all of the fresh fruits and veggies on the lunch menu, including the salad bar, are now organic. This is awesome news in itself, but then last week I got an email from the district listing all the changes they've made district-wide and together it adds up to some really positive change.

Here's part of the email from the district:

Now on to our other exciting changes and successes!
We've been doing tastings, working with students, changing recipes, meeting with parents and working hard to serve the best possible food.
In January we are surveying all of the middle and high school students, as well as parents and caregivers.
We have eliminated all high fructose corn syrup from the food that is served to students in BVSD schools. We have also eliminated all added trans-fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils) from our food.
We have reduced or eliminated highly processed foods, refined sugars, refined flours, chemicals, additives and dyes.
All schools now have full salad bars that include meat and vegetable protein and fresh produce.
We are serving bulk organic Colorado milk at lunch and hormone and antibiotic-free milk at breakfast.
We instituted Universal Breakfast in the classroom at five schools and are in the process of adding breakfast service to all schools in the district.
We now serve fresh fruits and vegetables every day at lunch.
We also serve at least one vegetarian entrée everyday at lunch.
All of our bread and bakery products are whole grain.

I'm impressed!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Homemade Yogurt is Easy

I started my first batch of homemade yogurt last night before I went to bed. I followed Sally Fallon's super easy directions in Nourishing Traditions.Instead of obsessing about keeping the temperate at an even 110 degrees Fahrenheit, you just leave it comfortably warm and forget about it. It worked. I left it overnight in the oven (I had initially preheated it to warm, then turned the oven off before adding the yogurt mixture). By morning it was fairly well set but still a little too watery so I turned the oven back on for about five minutes (I didn't even bother to take the yogurt out), then off again, and in a few more hours the yogurt was ready.

Lately I've been eating tons of yogurt, in the form of yogurt cheese drizzled with a little honey and topped with some crumbled walnuts. It's my latest favorite snack, but I've been going through a lot of yogurt. This is great now to know how easily I can make my own. And all the whey left over from turning the yogurt into yogurt cheese can be used for more experiments with lacto-fermentation. Another win-win situation.

To make homemade yogurt:

Heat a quart of whole milk slowly on the stove until it reaches 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from the heat and cool to 110 degrees. Stir in 1/2 cup live-culture yogurt. Preheat your oven to warm, then turn off. Pour yogurt mixture into a shallow baking dish, cover, place in oven and leave over night. In the morning you should have yogurt (or, in my case, in a few more hours with a little more heat added).

To make yogurt cheese:

Line a strainer with dampened cheesecloth, and place over a bowl. Add yogurt. Fold excess cheesecloth over the top of the yogurt, then place a weight on top (I usually just stick the quart-sized honey jar on top, precariously balanced). Wait about an hour for the whey to drip out, then fold the yogurt cheese into a bowl and eat. I add honey and walnuts, but it can be used for savory things as well (i.e., adding minced garlic to create a soft cheese spread for veggies or crackers). Save the whey for other uses--it should keep in the fridge for about 6 months.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Homemade Laundry Detergent

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with food (although it does involve some cooking), but I wanted to share it with you anyway. Making your own laundry detergent is a great way to save money and it lets you be in control of what goes into the final product.

This is the recipe I've been using for nearly two years now. One batch makes a 5-gallon bucket, which in my small household lasts for 6-months and costs just a penny per load.

I need to note that the Fels Naptha soap is, in my opinion, a rather questionable ingredient. The makers of it (the Dial Corporation) seem to go out of their way on the label not to tell you what's really in it. I'm assuming there are some fairly nasty chemicals.

Here's the ingredients list: "Cleaners, soil & stain removers, chelating agents, colorants, perfume. CONTAINS NO NAPHTHALENE."

Reassuring, eh??

That being said, I've used it for all of the batches I've made, except for the very first one. For the first one I had purchased the Fels Naptha soap but was so put-off by the strong chemical scent that I couldn't bring myself to use it. So for that first batch I used a bar of Ivory soap. The problem was that by the end of the first bucket our clothes seemed noticeably dingy and--I wasn't sure--but I thought maybe I detected a very faint sort of funk developing, something oh-so slightly malodorous. In other words, the Ivory soap just wasn't cutting it.

Now I definitely strive to make the most environmentally-sound choices, but in this case I caved and have used the Fels Naptha soap for all the subsequent batches. It does work very well. It gets our clothes clean, and until I can come up with a better substitute, I will continue to use it. I suspect that it contains a fairly high concentration of lye because it is quite harsh on the skin (if you get the detergent on your hands--not from merely wearing clothes washed in it). This probably isn't a good recipe for people with sensitive skin though.

Here's the recipe:


1 cup washing soda
1/2 cup borax
1 bar Fels Naptha laundry soap
few drops essential oil of your choice (optional)


an old cooking pot
an old cheese grater
an old wooden spoon
**Do not use any of the above items for food anymore.**
a 5-gallon bucket
stirring stick of some sort (I use a yardstick)
an empty detergent bottle

Grate the Fels Naptha soap (or other soap of your choice) into your cooking pot.

Cover with water and cook over low heat, stirring to dissolve, until completely melted and blended.

Pour the melted soap mixture into your five gallon bucket, add the washing soda and borax, and fill the bucket with warm water. Add essential oil if you're using it. Stir thoroughly and allow to cool. (Notice how the detergent has washed the numbers off of my yardstick.)

Fill your empty detergent bottle with detergent (rubber gloves recommended if you're dunking the bottle into the bucket like I do). Use 1/2 cup of detergent per load (the cap on the bottle I use holds a half-cup, but I'm not sure if that's how all detergent bottles are sized).

Once the detergent cools it will become a thick gel. You will have to stir it up very well each time you need to fill your bottle, and you'll need to shake up the bottle before each use.

If you have a lot of whites to wash you probably want to buy some liquid bluing (like Mrs. Stewarts) since homemade detergent doesn't contain any optical whiteners.

**If anyone out there has an effective detergent recipe which they know to be environmentally friendly, please post it in the comment section below. Also, if anyone knows the real ingredients in Fels Naptha soap, please share that with us as well.**

Food Goals 2010

My goals for the new year:

  • Expand the intensive garden from 500 to 800 square feet.
  • Get the soil tested and amended.
  • Grow 100 square feet of oats.
  • Get 3 or 4 hens.
  • Get meat rabbits.
  • Eat only home-cooked meals--no restaurants or convenience foods at all.
  • Start ordering bulk grains and beans.
  • Get a pressure canner, oat roller, and grain mill.
  • Build a multi-purpose warming box for: food dehydrating, seed starting, yogurt incubating, and bread rising.
  • Finally clean out the storm cellar to use as a root cellar.
  • Get more experience fermenting foods.
  • Make sure to pass along my new skills to Collin.
  • Get better acquainted with the other gardeners in town.
  • Sell excess produce at the farmer's market.
  • Expand the herb garden.
  • Finally build a cold frame and create some hoop tunnels.

What I accomplished in 2009:

  • Expanded the garden from 100 to 500 square feet.
  • Grew 241 pounds of tomatoes.
  • Got a tomato strainer.
  • Canned 3 kinds of pickles, 2 kinds of ketchup, 2 kinds of tomato sauce, tomato juice, tomato paste, beet preserves, salsa, and hot sauce.
  • Fermented beet juice, salsa, chard stalks, and a tiny batch of sauerkraut.
  • Froze green beans, zucchini, chard, butternut squash soup, and tons of pesto.
  • Sun-dried a batch of tomatoes.
  • Went into the winter with plenty of garlic, winter squash, and beets, plus a few potatoes and some (pathetically small) onions.
  • Grew 34 different kinds of fruits, veggies and herbs.